Since Light In The Attic is a reissue label, a lot of the time we are unable to speak to the artists behind our releases. Perhaps this is why, when our artists are still around, we feel extra lucky that we actually get to talk to them and ask them our questions. This is one of those cases. A couple of weeks ago we announced our reissue of an amazing folk album from 1984 by friends David Kauffman and Eric Caboor called Songs From Suicide Bridge, and recently we got to ask them some questions. These guys are not only great songwriters, but all around poetic and interesting people and we think there are some really interesting insights into the album to be found in the Q&A that follows.
How do you feel about this reissue? The album’s garnering quite a bit of excitement even at the preorder stage. How does it feel?
ERIC: The reissue of this album came from pretty much out of the blue for us. After 30 years, you just kind of assume that you’ve already reached whatever audience you’ll ever reach. Those who discovered and liked this record probably kept it, and there weren’t that many copies to begin with, so the likelihood of any copies falling into new hands gets pretty slim. This record was never intended to reach a large audience when we made it. Both David and I realized that the music here wasn’t mainstream in any sense, and I don’t think we had any “delusions of grandeur,” so to speak. But we both personally liked the songs and figured that there would be enough interest to do a modest pressing. As it turned out, the majority of records were sent out as promos to college radio stations in an attempt to get a little airplay. I think most of those records eventually ended up in bargain bins at local records shops around the country. Oddly enough, it’s probably those copies that eventually ended up in the hands of adventurous shoppers and created whatever following it had. It was certainly a roundabout type of distribution.
When Light in the Attic contacted us about a possible reissue, it was a bit of a surprise as we’ve never shopped our records anywhere in the industry. But I have to say that it’s one of the highest compliments we’ve received in our musical endeavors, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone for showing so much interest and working so hard to get this music out to a new audience.
DAVID: Needless to say, it feels strange that the response we were hoping for when it was originally released is coming thirty years later! But it’s nice to know the album has developed somewhat of a following and that there are still people out there listening.
What did it feel like revisiting/listening to this album three decades after you recorded it?
ERIC: I break out the old records to listen to every now and again. Sometimes it’s several years between listenings, but I’m pretty familiar with all of the material. Of course this time I probably listened with a bit more of a critical ear in light of the upcoming reissue. There are always things that bother me if I let them – things that I wish were recorded or arranged differently, etc. But the flaws are probably just as important as anything else.
When we decided to record these songs, we wanted to get a sound that was a fairly good representation of our live performances, and God knows there were plenty of flaws in those…
DAVID: Before it was released on CD by a Korean label (2012), I had listened to the album only once in twenty years – mainly because I had no access to a turntable. But since getting LITA’s version, I’ve listened to it a number of times and feel it’s held up pretty well. The album captures where Eric and I were at that point in our lives, so listening to it now transports me back to that time. What’s kind of a surprise is that I find myself relating to the songs . . . It probably helps that I was there!
How did you first start making music? What or who initially turned you on to songwriting?
ERIC: I didn’t start playing guitar until the summer before college, so it took a few years of hacking around, trying to figure out what it was all about. I eventually got together with a friend from high school by the name of Chris Iverson, who was on sort of the same musical journey as me. I had played guitar just a bit longer than him, but he was already writing songs. Suddenly, I realized how much more I enjoyed the creative process when working on Chris’ original material than sitting around trying to learn riffs (which neither of us was very good at anyway). Eventually, I tried my hand at writing as well, and when Chris didn’t laugh me out of the room, I decided I kind of liked it so I continued. Over time, we gained enough confidence to play out at a few small coffee houses in the area. We did a number of sets at the Basement in Echo Park, which is where we met David. For a time, we played out as a trio, performing each others songs. Eventually, Chris moved up north, and then it became the duo of Kauffman and Caboor.
DAVID: I started playing the baritone horn in 4th grade, but eventually took up the trombone, which I played throughout college. I also enjoyed singing from as early as I can remember and I participated in various vocal groups from elementary through high school. My interest in songwriting began around 1974/5. It was around that time that a former high school friend turned me on to Dylan and Joni Mitchell and I bought my first guitar.
Who else were you listening to at the time you recorded Suicide Bridge, other than Danny O’Keefe, who may have directly or indirectly influenced the album?
ERIC: We were certainly in awe of Danny O’Keefe for his songwriting and performing, but I don’t think either of us was ever under the illusion that we could emulate him or his material. He was just so incredibly good that no one could touch him. The inspiration we referred to was more of the way someone so good could be largely ignored by the industry (and most of the public) and still continue to push ahead. In a strange sort of way, it was probably this inspiration that convinced us to form our own company and put out the records ourselves. If O’Keefe couldn’t get a label behind him, we sure as hell didn’t stand a chance.
I recall that during this time I also was discovering Folkscene on KPFK, and was really blown away by some of the great writers that I heard there – people like Stan Rogers, Eric Bogle, Ralph McTell, and Paul Brady. Again, I can’t really say that any of these were direct influences on the album, but the writing was so different from the mainstream singer-songwriters that I think it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
DAVID: Eric and I had absorbed so much music by that time that I think whatever influences were involved had more of a cumulative effect than anything else. Interestingly, at the time the original album was released we were compared to artists we were totally unfamiliar with! That being said, some of the albums I remember listening to at the time were Recent Songs by Leonard Cohen, The Up Escalator by Graham Parker, Into the Music by Van Morrison and The Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder. I can pick these out because they remind me of the apartment I was living in.
How did you decide to use the Colorado Street Bridge as an icon for the album?
ERIC: Being a native southern Californian, I passed the bridge countless times during my youth whenever my family drove over to Pasadena. There was always a real mix of emotions involved when seeing that bridge. It’s an incredibly gorgeous bit of architecture, so unlike anything else of its kind. But it’s also quite frightening, particularly in light of its history.
To this day, I still find myself looking for lost souls somewhere on that bridge who might be trying to end it all. It wasn’t until after I grew up that I learned its proper name – in my early years, I just knew it as “Suicide Bridge.” When David and I were tossing around ideas for the album concept, I think I mentioned the bridge at one point when we were discussing an album of our darker songs. I don’t recall which one of us actually came up with the title. We played off of each others ideas so much that I doubt if David remembers either.
Long before the recordings were finished, we decided to go over to the bridge and shoot some pictures. I called up my friend, Albert Dobrovitz, to come along. Albert was a filmmaker, not a photographer, but he had an incredible eye and I knew he would pull off some great pictures. It just so happened that the bridge was closed to traffic the day we went, so we had the entire thing to ourselves. After we got the prints, we started work on the cover design. In a way, I think that having designed the cover made it a bit easier to narrow down our song list.
DAVID: As I recall, when Eric and I were trying to come up with a title for the album, he mentioned ‘Suicide Bridge,’ i.e., the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena. I was unfamiliar with both the bridge and it’s nickname, but we thought the idea had possibilities, so we had some photos taken by Eric’s friend, Albert Dobrovitz. When we saw the shots it was a no-brainer, and we had the design of the original gatefold album cover finished over a year before the record was released.
In Sam Sweet’s liner notes, he writes, “At some point, one of them suggested, half joking, that they should put all their darkest and least viable works together on one record, if only to spite the industry that had rejected them. It would be the debut that no one wanted to hear.” To what extent did you intend for this album be an f-you to the music industry/mainstream culture?
ERIC: I’ve never been a big fan of the music industry or of mainstream culture – I just don’t relate to them. But that being said, I don’t honestly think that the purpose of the record was to flip off anyone. As I stated before, David and I liked these songs and felt that there might be others who would like them as well. I think I can safely say that David and I have both dealt with our share of depression at various times in our lives, and often it was our music that pulled us up, despite the dark nature of the writing. We knew quite well that no major label would ever show an interest in a record of this kind, and who could blame them? But that was the great thing about doing it ourselves. Money never entered into our thoughts, we just did it because we wanted to. In a way, maybe that is an f-you, but I wouldn’t say that we were bitter. It’s more like we just didn’t care.
DAVID: Now that I think of it, the album would have been more of a flip-off to the music industry if we had already been a part of the industry. But not having the pressure of outside influences, we were free to make a record that was of interest to us and not one that smacked of the typical debut effort. Call it ‘poetic license with a vengeance!’ Needless to say, such an approach could have spelled disaster (other than financial!), but I think we succeeded in accomplishing what we set out to do. If nothing else, we produced a record that never would have seen the light of day via a mainstream label. So I guess you could say we were flipping off the ‘status quo’ more than anything else. Although the status quo and the music biz (with few exceptions) are pretty much one and the same. It wasn’t until a few years later that independent record companies became a viable alternative to the major labels.
How was the basement studio set up when you recorded? Can you explain a little bit more about how the four track portastudio that you were using affected the overall sound/style of the album?
ERIC: The studio was actually in a small utility building behind the main house (unfortunately, there are very few basements in southern California). It was really pretty simple. There was soundproofing material applied to all the walls, so the room was sonically pretty dead. We recorded the whole thing with SM-57 mics, which is all we had or could afford. The portastudio became the recorder of choice after I was ripped off for several thousand dollars while trying to purchase multi-track reel to reel equipment. Portastudios were 4 track cassette recorders which ran the tape at higher speed so as to minimize noise and tape hiss – it worked reasonably well for doing demos and was a pleasure to use due to its simplicity, but it was certainly never intended to record a final project. Nevertheless, being the stubborn sorts that we were, we refused to wait until we had enough money to purchase more reel to reel equipment, so we plowed ahead with our recordings. There is no doubt that the feel of the record was greatly affected by this machine. The lack of brightness and separation gives the whole thing a dark, somewhat muddled sound. In addition, we added huge amounts of reverb during mixdown to make up for the deadness of the room. In short, the album’s sound is mostly due to two factors: lack of money for better equipment, and lack of experience in engineering. I wish I could say that we planned every detail, but I’d be lying.
DAVID: As a clarification, Eric and I first met at ‘The Basement Coffee House’ in Echo Park, but the studio we recorded in was a one room stand-alone building located behind Eric’s parents’ house. The studio was comfortable – we weren’t roughing it by any means – and we kept most of our instruments out there, including Eric’s upright acoustic piano. We also had a half-way decent sound system, so we could listen back to what we were recording. The portastudio we used was a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder/player similar to the one Bruce Springsteen used on ‘Nebraska.’ It was designed primarily for demo use, but we figured if Springsteen could get away with it, so could we. (For some reason the logic doesn’t make as much sense to me now as it did then!) The portastudio gave the music a kind of ‘closed-in’ sound, which was probably compounded by our use of microphones. I may be wrong, but I think we used an SM57/58 on everything! We compensated for the dryness of what was on tape by adding more reverb than normal in the mix-down. But we were also trying to create a sound that did justice to the songs. What resulted was a ‘claustrophobic spaciness’ – something that never would have been achieved (let alone allowed) had we recorded in a professional studio or had we known anything about proper recording techniques!
Was each individual song on the album penned and performed by just one of the two of you, or did you guys collaborate on them? Did anyone else play on the tracks?
ERIC: While each of our records has at least one song that David and I collaborated on, we always wrote alone. In the case of this record, the song is Midnight Willie. I had written the song after reading an article in the L.A. Times about a guy on skid row – the article served only as inspiration, the song is totally fictional. Originally the song was in open E tuning and sounded much different, but in the context of the album, it didn’t quite seem to work. So I gave the lyrics to David and he worked out the music and arrangement that we ended up using. Most of the songs were already written before we even decided to make a record. The only exception to this was the final song, “One More Day.” After listening to the songs back to back, we felt that there was something missing. We didn’t really want to end the record on such a dark note. While the record documented a low period in our lives, we certainly weren’t advocating suicide. So I went back to my apartment and wrote this (also in open E). I didn’t want it to be a “happy” song, just something with a glimmer of hope after what the rest of the album put the listener through. When I played it for David, he approved, and we had our final song.
Most of the performances on the album involved both of us playing on various tracks. Our friend Chris Iverson was also in the studio when we recorded “Where’s the Understanding,” and he added a second acoustic guitar. We recorded that one live with no overdubs. Since the portastudio was only a four track machine, we quickly learned to make use of every bit of tape that was available to us. In fact, we probably learned that a bit too well.
When we went to mix down our tracks, Norman Stepansky, our engineer, was nearly driven insane after realizing that we had all kinds of incompatible parts on each track (e.g. a background vocal that suddenly changes to a mandolin, etc.). This gives an engineer fits trying to EQ each track, and it looked like the project might not survive. But after sleeping on it, Norman came up with a solution and we finished up with no problem. Again, this was another great example of our inexperience.
DAVID: “Midnight Willie” is the only song on the album Eric and I co-wrote. As I recall, Eric had written a version of the song but wasn’t completely satisfied with the music, so he gave me the lyrics to see what I could come up with. Believe it or not, I didn’t play on any of Eric’s songs, but he played various instruments on mine. We tended to concentrate on my songs the nights we were in the studio together – Eric would work on his songs separately. The only place you can hear our voices together is on the second chorus of “Kiss Another Day Goodbye.” Chris Iverson – a mutual friend of ours – played a second acoustic guitar on “Where’s the Understanding?” Eric and I played everything else. One of the things that gives the album its unique sound is Eric’s mandolin, and both steel and electric guitar playing.
Obviously your musical styles back then were in sync and complementary, but they were not necessarily the same… How do the two of you differ musically in terms of your own musical style and your taste in music?
ERIC: David came from a much broader musical background than me, having played the trombone for many years and having a college degree in music. He was comfortable with a lot of different styles, from jazz to big band to rock, as well as all the singer-songwriter stuff. I was also into some of the rock and songwriter material, but my primary interest was country and folk, the simpler the music, the better. During our years of working together, I began to listen to a bit more of the music that David was into, and he in turn started listening to a bit more of my “hillbilly” music. There’s no doubt, we both expanded our musical tastes considerably, and it definitely had an effect on our later writing.
DAVID: Eric probably had more of a country/rock and folk background at the time. Because of my schooling, I had more of a jazz and classical background, though neither really factored into my songwriting. By the time we met, I was listening to more rock and even some pop. The singer-songwriter genre of the 60s–80s was probably our most shared taste and influence.
In his liners, Sam Sweet states that Suicide Bridge reflects “the loneliness of Los Angeles.” In your opinion, how did Los Angeles shape the album, if at all?
ERIC: I don’t think this album was shaped any more by Los Angeles than by any other big city. We just happened to be living in L.A. when we wrote the songs. A lot of the record is dealing with the internal struggles of loneliness and depression, and that really has little to do with the external environment. Ironically, of the three albums we made, this one probably deals least with L.A. Both of the other ones are definitely L.A. inspired records, particularly our third, Tightrope Town. But that’s just my perspective, of course. I’m sure that Sam makes a very valid point as far as a lot of the listeners are concerned and, in the end, it’s the listener’s perspective that counts, not mine.
DAVID: For whatever reason, I picked up on an emptiness to Los Angeles, as well as a futility and a timelessness, i.e., a losing track of time. The sprawl of the city and the static weather factored in as well. All of these had a certain effect on what I wrote – especially on the music. A question to ask is, ‘Do you get a more accurate picture of a place when things are going as planned or when things aren’t going as planned?’ The latter picture is Suicide Bridge.
Who are you guys listening to these days?
ERIC: I’m up for anything that catches my ear, and I try to listen to stations like KCSN at least a little each day, since I discover a lot of music that I wouldn’t know about otherwise. YouTube has proven useful for this as well. There are some great young bands out there, but you have to hunt around a bit to find them. It’s safe to say you won’t discover much on pop radio or the Grammy awards. My tastes are still pretty simple, although I don’t like any of the crap that passes for country music these days. I always look forward to anything by Jay Farrar and Son Volt. They’re doing what country music stopped doing years ago. And I’ve come to terms with the music from my youth and can honestly say that I enjoy hearing some of the pop stuff from the 60′s again, although I can’t take a steady diet of oldies.
DAVID: Most of the listening I do anymore is in the car, and I typically put on something classical – Bach, Mozart, etc. However, an artist I’ve enjoyed listening to recently is Madeleine Peyroux. I think she does great covers of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, and Elliott Smith. Her version of Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” is one of my all-time favorite recordings.
To quote Mr. Sweet one more time: “They expelled something in the process of making the first album, and though they continued to hone their craft, the soul of their music was never as severe or as uncanny.” What have you been doing musically since the album? Have you guys collaborated again? How has your music evolved? Are you working on any projects currently?
ERIC: As stated before, we made two more records after this album, in 1989 and in 1992. Both were full band records and were done on much better equipment. Ironically, several recent articles have mentioned that the last two records can’t compare with Songs From Suicide Bridge. Perhaps when people finally were able to hear what we were doing without all of the reverb, they didn’t like us so much after all! Personally, I make no such distinctions between the albums. I feel that the writing was even throughout all of them, and I’m equally happy with them all. But again, that’s just my perspective, and ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide what they like.
David and I both have a large backlog of unrecorded material, some predating our first album, and some written as much as 20 years later. I would like to make a lot of this material available in some form eventually, so we’ll see what happens. In terms of collaborating, I would hope that we could release this material as a joint effort – I have little desire to put out anything on my own. Of course it’s a bit harder to dig in to these types of projects when we now reside in different states, but it’s not impossible. The thirty years since we made Songs From Suicide Bridge have gone by in the blink of an eye. The trick now is to stay motivated enough to get some of these other projects done before the next thirty years pass – I seriously doubt if they’ll allow recording equipment in the nursing home…
DAVID: Eric and I made two more albums after Songs from Suicide Bridge – Beyond the Blue (1989) and Tightrope Town (1992) – both as The Drovers (not to be confused with a Chicago group of the same name). They were recorded on much better equipment and for the most part feature a full band. However – and I think Eric would agree with me on this – the songs on Suicide Bridge work better together conceptually than the songs on the other two albums. In the late 90s/early 2000s I was working on recording some of my early material to release as a solo album, but I got bogged down in minutiae and never completed it. I seldom pick up the guitar anymore, but I still play the keyboard on a regular basis, and, as always, I have a number of unfinished songs in my head! Songwriting hasn’t been a priority in my life for many years. My most productive period was the time leading up to ‘Suicide Bridge.’
At present Eric and I live a thousand miles apart, so working together again would be difficult, though not impossible. Who knows? Maybe a positive response to LITA’s re-release of Suicide Bridge will be the incentive needed for us to get back into the studio . . . Or does that sound too much like the status quo?