Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Joe Cardamone of The Icarus Line

The Icarus Line's Joe Cardamone, Ben Hallett, Lance Arnao and Alvin DeGuzmann at Valley Recording Co.
(Ward Robinson)



At Valley Recording Co. (Burbank)

"Los Angeles is a hodgepodge of whatever you make it to be," begins L.A. native Joe Cardamone, frontman for the Icarus Line. "I have favorite spots all over the place, no matter what part of the city I'm in, because I've lived everywhere from the Valley and Hollywood to Los Feliz and the East Side. But the area around Highland Park – Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Lincoln Heights – that's where I grew up and feel at home, that's the L.A. I write about."

"I grew up on both sides of the tracks because my family lived in Highland Park, which was way different than it is now, but I went to school in South Pasadena," he continues. "I had an uncle who lived there, and we lied about our address so I could go there. You have to do shit like that here in L.A. My mom's an educator, so that was important to her, even though I didn't really graduate."

It seems that Joe has always made his own rules, whether it's navigating his way around school district borders, organizing underground punk shows in his suburban neighborhood or taking part in on- and off-stage antics that cemented the Icarus Line's bad-boy status. He continues to push boundaries with the group's fifth album, Slave Vows, that released earlier this month. The seething collection of eight songs defies the conventions of most modern rock albums: Tracks vary in length from two to 11 minutes; Some kick off with several minutes of instrumental snarling, with vocals not joining in until midway through; All of the songs were recorded live in Joe's own studio, Valley Recording Co., in Burbank.

Valley Recording Co. provides the perfect setting for our interview, since it is usually where you will find Joe. Aside from serving as the Icarus Line's rehearsal space, Joe has produced albums for bands like Giant Drag, the Bixby Knolls and Spirit Vine in the studio. Located among several industrial business, there's no need to be concerned about the volume being too loud at any hour of the day, however, there's nothing cold and industrial about the atmosphere inside Valley Recording Co. Warm wood panels line the walls of the studio that Joe spent four months building, and there's an amazing art piece of wood bricks that he constructed in the mixing room. It's an environment that he and fellow resident producer/engineer Greg Gordon feel fortunate to call their home base.

The custom wall at Valley Recording Co. (Ward Robinson)
While Joe currently lives in Laurel Canyon, he's excited to be moving back to his old stomping grounds of Highland Park in a few weeks.

"Every week it looks different. You drive down York [Boulevard], and there's galleries and all kinds of bars. When I grew up there, there was nothing," he says. "There was Mr. T's Bowl and the pizza joint, but besides that there were no record stores or even any white people."

Joe grew up listening to his dad's record collection of 1960s music and the entire Beatles discography, which were his childhood lullabies. As he grew up and started going to punk rock shows, he visited Mr. T's and venues like the Anti Club and Natural Fudge a lot. He also put on a bunch of shows in different hole-in-the-wall places around town. The first concert he ever went to, though, was a huge one: Guns N' Roses and Metallica at the Coliseum. Guns N' Roses and their 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, proved to be a monumental influence on Joe's life.

"One year my dad gave me a gift certificate to Licorice Pizza, which was an old record store in L.A., so I got to walk around the store and pick what I wanted. I got a Young MC single and Appetite for Destruction. That tape was glued in my deck for the next couple of years. When my mom heard it, she threw it away. I must have bought copies of it five times; she kept throwing it away, and I kept buying it. They were scary-looking dudes, that's why I liked it. For a 12-year-old kid these guys were wild looking," he recalls. "The day I put that tape in my player, that was it. I stopped doing homework and started convincing other kids to buy instruments. It was pretty instantaneous. I was a lost soul up until that point – always in trouble, getting into fights and I had been kicked out of a couple schools. I didn't have anything to tether me to society or humanity whatsoever. I couldn't relate to anything; I was always angry. That record was the first thing that gave me a way out."

While at South Pasadena High School, aka South Pas, Joe met Lance Arnao ("We started South Pas on the same day, and both had no friends."), and the Icarus Line was born in 1998 with Joe on vocals, Arnao on bass, Aaron North on guitar and Aaron Austin on drums. They played venues like the Cobalt Café in the Valley and Chain Reaction in Orange County and released a few EPs before unveiling their debut, Mono, in 2001. The album won them a place on several best album of the year lists, and the Icarus Line graduated to world tours.

It was during a show at the Austin Hard Rock Café when the infamous Stevie Ray Vaughan incident (North smashed a protective case surrounding a guitar that supposedly belonged to the guitar legend with a mic stand) occurred, and the band started being referred to as hellions. Eventually, Austin, Arnao and North, who went on to form Buddyhead with Travis Keller and play guitar with Nine Inch Nails, all parted ways with the group, but Joe soldiered on with a rotating lineup that included longtime friend Alvin DeGuzmann and put out the highly praised Penance Soiree in 2004 and 2007's Black Lives at the Golden Coast. The release of 2011's Wildlife marked a significant change for the band with Joe assuming production and engineering duties for the first time.

"I've always been very hands on with our records, mostly because I've usually known what I want. When we were doing Penance we met with a bunch of big producers, and I would tell them what I wanted. A couple of them said, "Well, you know exactly what you want, so why don't you just do it,'" he remembers. "I never really dreamed of owning a studio, it just came out of necessity. I'm pretty good at looking at the big picture of things and pretty easy for people to deal with, so that helps. The main thing when it comes to pro ducting is being able to make people feel comfortable."

Joe in the studio
It also helps that artists feel like Joe can relate to their situations as well, since he's also a recording artist. Having worked with all types of musicians as a part of the Icarus Line's various lineups has definitely aided in his production abilities as well. He specifically mentions those experiences in relation to stepping in to record with local band Wake Up Lucid, comprised of a tight-knit unit of two brothers and their cousin.

"They were super receptive to the things I had to say because they wanted a great record. I've been a bandleader for so long, and that's basically what I do when I produce records," he tells. "In all the different formations of the Icarus Line, I've always written towards everyone's strengths. I make sure that I'm writing material that we can perform that maximizes everyone's potential as an individual musician. Having done that, it made me a little more adept at honing in on people's strengths and writing towards them or finding something out about them that they don't already know and fostering that. That's what I did with Wake Up Lucid and hopefully what I do with a lot of bands: Find out the best things about them that they don't already know and let that shine."

Letting each band member's talent shine is something that Joe has definitely achieved with Slave Vows. The band, with Arnao back on bass, DeGuzmann on keyboards and Ben Hallett on drums, spent most of 2012 on the road with Killing Joke and the Cult. Since he has played music with Arnao and DeGuzmann since they were children and Hallett has been a part of the group for over three years, Joe feels like they've achieved a perfect blend of old and new, making for some fantastic chemistry that lent a natural and organic air to Slave Vows' recording process.

"That's one of the main reasons that we recorded it live, because I knew who was in the room with me and I knew what we could do. We spent the year on the road, and I just knew we could make an album on a four track or anything, it didn't matter, the band sounds insane. We took a couple of days to make sure everything was set up the way it needed to be to capture things properly, but after that, we pressed record, went in there for five hours, pressed stop and left. We did that for a couple of weeks and were done," he shares. "Music is plagued with a kind of micromanaging, revisionist mentality these days. A lot of it out there is all an airbrushed photo. It just doesn't appeal to me. Human and legitimate, pure performances have a compelling nature if you're open to being moved by that kind of stuff. It can be a heavy experience."

Joe definitely embraced the beauty that existed in the letting go of having to be in control over every single bar, the perfection in imperfection in the making of Slave Vows, and songs like "Dark Circles," "Dead Body" and "Rats Ass" are a kick in the gut to the material that occupies most radio airwaves today. The album should make both new and old fans excited about the Icarus Line and their future. As the band prepares to embark on a British tour in support of the release, I ask Joe if he plans on writing some new material on the road.

"Not so much, but I'll write words on the road. A lot of the lyrics I write have a documentary aspect to them. Even though they're not literal, they're definitely informed by our lives," he says. "Life on the road is so routine that I am mostly thinking of how to make the next night better, that's what I become fixated on: dialing the band in as we go. I don't multitask well. I feel like I'm sacrificing or compromising if I'm not focused on the task at hand 100 percent."

When he refers to his lyrics as having a documentary lean to them, it's quite an apt description since Slave Vows is very cinematic. In fact, the band released five film clips as a preview of the album. Each video features a different song and stars one band member, with Giant Drag's Annie Hardy in the fifth. 

"After Lance left the band, he started doing film and editing work as a career, so when he came back he said, 'I do all of this shit, so if we ever want to do anything, let's do it.' We've done some videos here and there, but it's always been an afterthought or someone else's thing. Now that we control it, it's the dawn of a new era for us because we can actually put visuals to the sound. Lance is good at visually interpreting what's going on in the songs, giving a look to what the songs sound like," he says. "For me, a lot of he movies I love are just as inspiring to the music as records. Sam Peckinpah films, for instance, definitely have something to do with us, why not represent that if we can?"

One can see the Peckinpah influence in the clip starring Joe, while they also pay homage to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy in the video with DeGuzmann sticking an entire live octopus in his mouth.

"That was definitely not his idea, unfortunately for him," Joe laughs. "I went to Koreatown at 11 a.m., and there were two left so I bought them then called Lance and said, 'Get the camera. They're going to be dead in three hours.' We all met up and made it happen."

You can view all of the Icarus Line videos here. Slave Vows is currently available. The Icarus Line perform Sept. 7 at the Wiltern. For more information, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment