Memphis had the blues. The Sunset Strip had glam metal. Detroit had Motown.
And now for some reason, Lebanon seems to have become a hotbed for ambient rock music, of all things. Bands like Phase Materia, Soporus, and Cave Paint — who’ve just released a new album — are leading the way.
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Many of the musicians in those bands are or were, probably unsurprisingly, interconnected, said Travis Shirk of Cave Paint in a phone interview.
“Connor (Smith) and I from Phase Materia played in a band for a very long time – (he) was the original bass player for Cave Paint,” Shirk said. “It’s a small community.
“We all were in something together at some point and then all had our own ideas. It kind of just branched off, (but) no bad blood at all – we all really do support each other and what we’re doing,” he added.
Shirk started Cave Paint with friend Louis Zampirri back in 2012; they released the EP “Ways Away” in 2017, the full-length album “Between the Silence and the Sound” in 2019, and now their latest, “Before Then, Now.”
Shirk, 34, is a graduate of Cedar Crest High School. The self-taught musician plays guitar, keyboards, and percussion; the rest of the band is Dalton Bauder (keyboards and bass; originally from the Lebanon area, he lives in Philadelphia), Noah Althoff (from Akron, on guitar), and Trevor Kisscadden (from Lebanon, on drums).
He and Bauder met around 2010 while playing in different bands; they played in one together “and we haven’t stopped playing in projects ever since,” he said. He and Kiscadden met while Cave Paint was recording “Between the Silence and the Sound” in a Palmyra studio.
“I met (Noah) while working at a coffee shop in Palmyra,” he said. “(We) linked up more during COVID through emails and FaceTiming about recording and the development of song ideas. He’s an amazing engineer,” he added.
And Ben Roth, a Nazareth native, who runs the recording studio the Kaleidoscope, serves as fill-in bassist.
“He produced and recorded our first EP, as well as recorded our live session (also out now), and the drums for this newest record,” Shirk said. “He’s been a great friend of ours for forever and he expressed interest in playing bass. He’s (also) very interested in writing new material with us.”
There’s no particular meaning behind the name Cave Paint, Shirk said.
“I was living in northeast Philadelphia – that was probably 2009,” he said. “I started playing and it was all acoustic. We were just literally down in the basement rattling names off and that one just stuck.
“There’s nothing special about it at all, unfortunately,” he added wryly.
Cave Paint once had a singer, with whom Shirk wrote music. When he moved back to Lebanon, he played drums in the band The Changing Light with Connor Smith on vocals.
“Then Connor ended up doing his own thing, so it didn’t really make sense for me to be like, hey Connor, you wanna sing for this other band, too?” he said. “So it kind of just worked out. The first record was intended to have vocals, it just never did.
“And then the other records … were definitely not intended to have vocals in them. At this point, it was just a really, really hard sell for me to backtrack and say oh, OK, let’s get a vocalist,” he said.
The songs on the new half-hour album are divided into five called “Before,” three called “Then,” and two called “Now.” Shirk wrote the album during the 2020 COVID lockdown.
“It’s a play on words, like past, present, and future,” he said. “(And) when I wrote it, I didn’t have song titles for any of it – it was just like Track One, Two, Three, Four. I (thought) it would be cool if we shaped it like a book, like chapters, so that’s what we landed on.”
Originally, though, he wanted the album to be in the form of one 36-minute-or-so song.
“I was advised (by) colleagues that that might not be the best way to get the reach that you’re looking for, as far as listeners and playlists (go),” he said with a chuckle.
Shirk’s well-constructed drum fills give the tracks definite framework and structure.
“I would classify (drums) as my main instrument, so drums are always really important,” he said. “Each one of those songs is very particularly mapped out to different drum grooves.”
Main melodies primarily arise from jamming.
“I’ll just put a loop on a section and just hit ‘record’ over and over and see all the takes and pick and choose,” he said. “Another thing that I like to do, now that I know we’re not having vocals in it, is establishing bleeds with guitar or synthesizers, (which serve as) the vocal line.”
There are points of transition between certain songs that tend to be more electronic and freeform in nature, often including sound effects. The fourth piece in the “Before” section is one of them – it features sounds including a siren’s wail and an answering machine message left by his late grandmother.
“That part is about a time in my life when I lost my good friend in a car accident” and his grandmother passing away, he said. “Dalton went through the same thing in the past couple of years with a bunch of things in his life. It pertains to how I’m feeling, but also what he went through and what we’re healing from.
“You can never really heal from the loss necessarily – you just learn to live with it,” he said.
The second piece in the “Then” section serves a similar purpose, he said.
“Essentially it’s transcending into the present time,” he said. “It’s a nice door to close and open to go forward – it’s not necessarily the end, but it’s also a new beginning. Hopefully, it’s kind of like a cliffhanger.”
If you listen carefully to the first piece in the “Now” section, you can make out bits of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech about going to the moon. Shirk says the inclusion wasn’t meant to be political.
“(It was just about) overcoming all these challenges,” he said. “That is a transition to where I’m at now.”
Aside from Cave Paint, Shirk works in the restaurant industry. While bar manager at Rotunda Brew Pub in Hershey, he did a beer collaboration as a cross promotion for Cave Paint’s new album and the brewery. Dubbed Before Then, Now IPA, it’s available at Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse and Bulls Head Public House in Lititz. Bauder designed the label for the can, which echoes the album cover art.
“I have a really good relationship with Dave and Mikey Rotunda,” Shirk explained. “I told them what was happening with the record and pitched the idea. I told Mikey what style of beer we would like to have and some flavor profiles and (they) made it happen.
“They let the band have total control of the labels for the cans that were produced. I loved the idea of having a QR code on the cans so it would generate curiosity of what the beer was representing,” he added.
Shirk now works at the Lititz Springs Inn as bar manager for the cocktail and patio bars.
“I’m pretty much overseeing the day-to-day operations for the bar and implementing a new cocktail program for them,” he said.
He’s also a relatively new dad, to 2-year-old Novalyn, with girlfriend Shamar Hainly.
“It is challenging nowadays, especially with the little one, to find the time to sit down and write,” he admitted. “(But) what I do enjoy is if I pick up my acoustic guitar and I have my piano in our living room, she picks up her piano.
“Seeing her hear notes and watch me play, she’ll mimic (me). I just find it really inspiring. Music is the universal language – she can’t talk yet but she understands some of that. It’s mind-blowing,” he added.
And that new responsibility also limits live dates; Cave Paint used to tour once a year.
“(Now) we’re really picking and choosing what we want to do,” he said. “We’re trying to take the lead and set up our own shows and play what we would like to play, especially when it comes down to locally. (If) along the way, we get an offer that we’d really enjoy playing or whatever, of course, we’ll jump on it,” he added.
It all comes down to timing.
“We have Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and then Sunday to drive home – it’s not really a thing anymore for us to do that,” he said.
“(But) we love playing in the Brooklyn area, Philadelphia, certain places in Pennsylvania are great. Atlanta’s always fun. It’s just a matter of timing it and properly preparing. You don’t want to come home in the negative,” he added.
So Shirk has just loose plans for Cave Paint for the remainder of the year – perhaps one or two more shows before taking the winter and New Year’s off, writing more of their own material, and putting together another potential album, one with an interesting concept.
“We’ve toured a couple of times and met a lot of great musicians and became really good friends with a lot of people along the way,” he said. “We pitched the idea to these other people in bands – this was during quarantine – (that) we were going to come out with a compilation record with our music but alternative structures and call it ‘Cave Paint with Friends.’
“I was just going to send them the track so they could remix it, make (it) electronic even, do all this cool stuff. We’ve got people on board with it,” he added.
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