Interview with vocalist/guitarist Stephen Brodsky and guitarist Adam McGrath | By Ben Sailer
Rarely have a simple guitar and a hummed melody sounded as haunting as they do on the opening title track of Final Transmission, the latest release from influential post-hardcore trailblazers Cave In.
It’s taken directly from the last voice memo the Boston band received from bassist Caleb Scofield, shortly before he passed away in a tragic automotive accident on his way home after practice. There isn’t much to it beyond a barebones skeleton of a tune, yet the weight it carries feels insurmountable, the last document from a creative spirit taken from this world too soon.
Final Transmission was released on June 7 via Hydra Head Records, and now, vocalist and guitarist Stephen Brodsky and guitarist Adam McGrath open up about what the record signifies to the band, how it was constructed from loose demos, and more.
This is a very open-ended question that you can answer any way you like: How do you feel about this album now that it’s complete and [has been] released to the public?
Brodsky: I always try to bring the focus back to what started the record, which was basically us trying to do what we can to help the Scofield family get back on their feet after everything that transpired last year. Is it the record that I wanted Cave In to make? Well, yes and no. I mean, it’s different than the mission statement we had, which was to, at some point, take all this stuff and go into the studio and make a more or less proper recording.
Obviously, we didn’t get there, but I’m very thankful we were able to salvage something with the help of some really talented engineers—and, also, having [Hydra Head founder] Aaron Turner involved, willing to put out the record. I had a lot of mixed feelings about it, but I also think that this stuff is a document of some of the last times with our friend. So, above all, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for that.
McGrath: Yeah, following up what Steve said, I mean, I have mixed feelings about it as well, but I’m so thankful that we have those recordings and I’m so thankful that we made them what they are, but it is strange putting this out into world now. [We’re] just doing these things, like talking about this, and presenting a piece of work that’s kind of unfinished, and we’re not all there to present it, because it’s just the way it was.
So, we’re still kind of living through the experience of this whole process of losing our friend, but like Steve said, it is the document of our last moments with our friend. I’m so happy that the last time I ever spent time with him, we played music together. I’m so happy about that. It’s bittersweet. Very mixed feelings.
You said in another interview that it had been somewhat difficult in the past for the band to settle on a shared idea for what another Cave In record should sound like, but Caleb had the clearest vision of anyone. Could you articulate what some of those conversations were like at that time? How did he describe that vision of what he felt the album should sound like?
McGrath: We’d get together via email, or sometimes, myself and Steve would get together when Caleb wasn’t available to work on different riffs or different songs’ skeletons. He was really good at sussing out what was worth working on, what was worth pursuing, and what songs he likes. We knew if we sent him a demo in the mail, if he would record something on top of that, we knew that was good, because it would take a lot for him to actually come up with something and send it back.
We just tried to put our best foot forward, really a new record, and he was the best at articulating just what path we should take and just what made Cave In special, what made us unique or made us stand out, and the path we should follow to make a really good record together. Because he was a little bit older than us, he kind of led the way in a lot of things for us.
Brodsky: Yeah, and then there was a lot of trial and error, I think maybe more so with this record than any other records that we were trying to make. That’s because there was, like, a seven- or eight-year gap in between our last record. So, you know, like Adam said, there was some file-sharing at one point, and out of the several tracks that were passed back and forth, it only yielded one that all four of us played on, which is the song “Lunar Day.”
It’s a lot of stopping and starting, but it’s not like we were distant entirely from each other during that period. If anything, we were spending a lot of quality time just hanging out, […] at parties and family gatherings. It just took us a while to kind of get on the same page, but you know, I think around 2017, that’s when things at least started to materialize in a way where we were like, “OK, we can all get in a room.”
Was much added to the original demos between the time they were initially recorded and then ultimately mastered, or was there a lot of overdubbing or rerecording on parts to try to get things just so?
Brodsky: We didn’t rerecord any of the live tracks that we did with Caleb. Everything that we built on those tracks was based off what we captured in the room with the four of us. We did add stuff later on, after Caleb had passed and we started the wheels on finishing this record: some vocals, guitar overdubs, layers.
When we knew that, ‘OK, well, this is it. This is the record. What we have in our hands right now, these are no longer demos, this is going to be an album,’ that’s when we ramped it up a little bit, but we didn’t go too far with it. We didn’t really have to, you know? We kept it fairly simple. Just given the nature of everything, we just kind of did what we felt like we had to do to wrap it up as quickly as possible.
All the songs were there, you know, the arrangements, everything for the most part was just kind of as-is, as we had left it. Some of these songs we played like, what, maybe two or three times and then recorded it maybe a couple more times and that’s it, you know? In the end they were just supposed to be demos, but that’s how it goes, I guess.
McGrath: I also like to think of—like Steve said, describing the process of how some of the songs we only played two or three times and then recorded and then moved on, I mean, it’s definitely a product of us playing together for years, and I’m happy that you can hear that in these songs. You can hear a lot of miles between us, and I love that, you know?
When it came time to mix the final tracks, how much communication did you have with Andrew Schneider about what those final mixes should sound like?
McGrath: We’ve worked with him off and on for many years, so he kind of knows what we’re looking for. He laid out an outline of how we’d like to work on them to us, because all the songs were demos recorded differently. He had to do different setups for different mixes, but he couldn’t just mix it straight through. He had to really work on each different song, because they’re all recorded differently.
So, he just laid that out to us, and basically, he would send us mixes every day and we’d kind of send, like, little criticisms or ideas we would have, like notes or updates. Then, usually by the end of the day, we’d have a mix and then move onto the next one. I think, because we have a sort of history together, I think he knew what we were looking for. He told us really early on he would make them shine, and he certainly did.
Brodsky: Yeah, and he did some interesting things where, just based on the nature of the recording needing a little bit more tender loving care, he did stuff like flying in drum samples that he had recorded from the last Zozobra record, [2013’s Savage Masters]. So, those are actually a mix of [drummer] JR [Conners]’ live drums from the rehearsal space from Denby Street in Allston, [Massachusetts]. I’m sorry, not Denby.
McGrath: That’s, uh, that’s years ago.
Brodsky: Studio 52, and drum samples from the last Zozobra record. It’s cool how he amped a lot of the instruments and sent stuff into a room to create new ambiances, because, essentially, the rehearsal space we record at is what you might imagine. I mean, it’s carpeted and there’s sound-proofing everywhere, and it’s kind of like a dead room. It’s a room that we’re very comfortable playing in, but sonically, there’s not much to it. So, it’s cool. You know, Andrew definitely has a pretty unique imagination when it comes to things like that—like Adam said, making things shine and giving a new life to the tracks.
In the press release, there’s a quote saying you may have subconsciously been attempting to put all the best of what you had done before into this record. In your own opinions, how close do you feel you came to attaining that?
Brodsky: Hmm. Well, you know, I think there’s definitely some stuff that happened with this record that was really exciting. We tried to do guitar tunings that we’d never done before; that was the chief inspiration, especially on the first side of the record. I think that is part of what the best of Cave In is, like, experimentation that comes with wanting to reinvent the band to some degree, to the best of our abilities, and there’s certainly a bunch of that happening on here. I don’t know, what do you think, Adam?
McGrath: I thought we were really on to something, you know? It feels a little unfinished, obviously, because of the circumstances, but I felt like what we were doing here, we were on to something new. I felt like we were pushing forward again—Cave In was pushing forward again. That’s kind of what it felt like to me, kind of like we were doing us and trying to keep on pushing it forward—and where we’re at now in our late 30s, you know?
Brodsky: I also feel like we really stepped it up on the vocals on this record in the sense that quite a few of the tracks are myself, Adam, and JR doing, like, three-part harmonies. You know, we kind of tapped in to that California brown sound. [Laughs]
I think it actually kind of brought us together lyrically a bit more on this record. […] Sometimes, you know, Adam or JR would send back a harmony track, and the harmony wouldn’t fit totally closely with the main vocal, but it was doing something that made me rethink the main vocal and made me want to rerecord it to match the harmony more closely, improving the whole vocal line. So, there was quite a bit of that, and then lyrically, there was more discussion about things than we usually do—you know, really powerful.
McGrath: Yeah, I agree with Steve. Vocally, we definitely did things that we’ve never done before. I’ve never—I mean, if I sang harmonies with Steve on Cave In records, it’s not very many like [there are] on this record. This record, there were songs, like, straight through. Like Steve said, being inspired by new things like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Fleetwood Mac and things like that, it was fun to do, and when we were finishing up the record, it was like a whole new thing, a whole new dynamic in the recording process. I think it makes us better, you know?
Brodsky: I mean, we’re all ’70s children, you know, so we just love that hippie smile sound. We just can’t help it. It’s just in our blood. That classic rock, it just creeps out in us, so, you know, can’t help it.
Even going back to [your 1998 debut], Until Your Heart Stops, there’s some of that. It’s subtle, but you can pick up on some of that ’70s rock swagger and some of those riffs a little bit. So, how did it feel playing some of these new songs live?
McGrath: We’ve only played two so far, um—to that, because it was kind of a disaster, but it was all sort of funny—[inaudible]
Brodsky: Adam, it sounds like you’re breaking up.
McGrath: I’m far out in California. Can you hear me?
Brodsky: I can hear you now.
McGrath: Far out, man. [Laughs] You can hear me now?
Brodsky: Yep. Yes.
McGrath: OK. Well, I lost my train of thought. [Laughs]
Brodsky: You’re talking about the first time we played “All Illusion” live, and each one of us, we took turns fucking it up. [Laughs]
McGrath: Yeah, we definitely did, but at the same time, you know, playing Caleb’s music, it kind of makes him feel [like he’s] with us. Singing his lyrics can certainly feel a little wild and awkward sometimes, but it’s certainly breathing life into a really fucked-up situation. It feels like we’re moving forward—and I think [Converge bassist and Old Man Gloom guitarist] Nate [Newton]’s done a really good job playing this stuff with us. I think it’s therapeutic in a way. It’s nice to see it through, you know? I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.
Once people hear this record, is there anything specific that you hope they are able to take away from it?
Brodsky: Well, going back to how we started this conversation, when you asked about our feelings about the record, you know, just to kind of go back there again, the thing that got us on our feet to put this record together was the idea that it was going to serve the [Scofield] family, and in the process, that also ended up serving us. It was very therapeutic for myself, Adam, and JR to get together and hang out, spend time and be creative and, in a way, hang out with our friend as well, because his spirit and his playing is in the recording.
So, I think if there’s a takeaway that people should get from this, I think it’s worth the effort to go the extra mile to get through whatever painful situation it is that you’re trying to overcome. That’s life. No one is excluded from death or any painful situations. It’s just par for the course, and, you know, maybe this could set an example for people, like, “Hey, you know, in your most fucked-up state, maybe something beautiful can come out of it.”
McGrath: I don’t think I could say it any better than Steve. I mean, that was beautiful. I just wanted to do my friend right. I think we did, you know? I just wanted to do right by him. It’s a beautiful last testament to him. He was amazing.
Final Transmission is available now via Hydra Head Records. You can order it on CD or vinyl here.