With his Seattle-based project Cataldo, musician Eric Anderson has always taken the craft of songwriting seriously, and you can hear both the intricacies in his lyrics and the subtle sonic changes as the band’s catalog has grown. What started as a scrappy, DIY, get-it-done-in-any-way-possible music project has morphed into six full-length albums, including the recently released “Literally Main Street.” This batch of songs was written largely over the course of a single day and backed by veteran studio musicians with minimal overdubs.
We caught up with Anderson recently and learned what it was like to come up with a whole album’s worth of song ideas in a single day and what it was like to work with producer John Vanderslice. The result, “Literally Main Street,” is the rawest release from Cataldo to date and showcases Anderson’s superb storytelling.
Cataldo plays The Liquor Store in Portland on Wed., Oct. 2.
On the differences between Cataldo’s 2017 release “Keepers” and the new album “Literally Main Street”:
One [major difference] was how I started writing a group of the songs. I got together with a group of people in Seattle who were working on records, and they wanted to do this writing exercise where you try and write 20 songs in one day.
It’s an interesting project because it’s a guarantee you’re not going to write 20 brilliant songs. You’re not even going to write 20 good songs. So it gives you permission to be bad. And you do it with other people to hold yourself accountable. If I just said “you know, today I’ve got the day off, I’m going to write 20 songs,” by song eight you might be like “eh, maybe I’ll do some other stuff today.”
You do it with other people in large part so you have someone to show the stuff to and that they’re going to show their 20 songs to you. You don’t want to show up empty-handed.
On how he found out about the 20 song challenge and how it affected his writing:
Dave Depper [a Portland musician who also plays in Death Cab For Cutie] told me about it a few years ago. So I was writing those songs, but it’s funny because I usually don’t start thinking about writing another batch [of songs] until at least the previous record is out or when touring is wrapping up on a record.
I was truly out of ideas, so I came in totally cold and I just had to go in and try to come up with something. What I ended up writing were a handful of songs that are on the record — not fully formed, but early versions of them. And then when I showed the songs to all the writers they kept asking me questions, and I didn’t have good answers because it’s not like I sat there with an eraser in my mouth thinking “ah, yes, who is this song about and what must I do with this song.”
Some of the songs were just kind of finished sort of to try and answer their questions. “White Lighter,” “Ding Dong Scrambled Eggs,” and “Way Way Back” were all like that. For whatever reason I was drawing on experiences and characters and situations and people from my hometown in Idaho. It was childhood and adolescence and early adulthood. It was interesting because they would pick up on something that I barely realized was going on [in the song], so that pointed me in a direction.
After that exercise I had a huge batch of songs, and I thought “you know, there must be something going on here.” Clearly I have something to say, and I went about it in a more intentional way. I would wander around my home town in my head. I’d walk down the street and notice specific locations or lock into certain memories, drawing on that in a more conscious way as I was trying to wrap up the songs that would become the record.
On working with producer John Vanderslice (Spoon, The Mountain Goats, Radiation City):
Vanderslice came in with all of these rules that are great, but they are really intense. I committed to the record after probably a 25-minute phone call with John. He’s a pretty blunt person in general, but he just sort of laid it out for me.
The first thing he said was “if you want to make a standard rock record, it will take you 10 days. If you want to make [Joni Mitchell’s] ‘Court & Spark,’ it will take 15 days.” In my head, I’m thinking that’s way too fast…how can you make records that fast? So my follow up question was, “how long does it take to mix?” And he was like “no, no, no that includes mixing.” When I asked “how?” he laid out these rules:
• It will all be on tape
• No more than four takes of anything
• No demos to ‘poison his brain’
• He wanted to hire and select musicians because he needed people who could hang with this process
On limiting himself to only four takes in the studio:
The [four takes criteria] really raised my eyebrows at first, but we exceeded that all the time — I think it was sort of a cover-your-ass thing in case I was going to be psycho and wanted to do take after take after take. But the [other rule] that really was instructive and, for me, the thing that really makes this process work was “no more than one take of anything on the reel.” The really compelling thing is that every time you stand in front of the microphone you’re never adding takes to a pile that you’re going to later comb through and comp and make the best version of. You’re trying to do THE take. Every time … the cumulative effect of all of that is very powerful. I’m having trouble imagining making a record another way now.
On songwriting without any demos:
When I figured out that this was going to be the process and it was going to be all his musicians and I was going to basically walk into a room of strangers and make a record with them — and a methodology I was completely unfamiliar with where they were not going to know any of the songs leading into it — I put so much energy into writing good songs and writing songs that could explain themselves on a piano or a guitar.
I went on a solo tour leading up to recording, and that was really helpful. I had most of the songs almost done, and I would play them on the tour. Of course, no one knows the songs, but I would play them before they were done so there would sometimes be big sections of the songs that I didn’t have an idea for yet. I’d just go up there and play [the songs] and I had to fill the space with something.
Some of my favorite lines on the record originated like that. There’s a line on “Ding Dong Scrambled Eggs” in verse two that goes “It’s just like Cheers, but sad / I’m a great Diane, where’s my Sam” and that came out because we were watching Cheers [on tour] the night before.