Great Caesar Moves to Brooklyn, Gets in Touch with Their Feelings

Great Caesar: more childlike than they admit.

Q. What was it like going from the Yale music scene to Brooklyn?

A. There are so many other bands, and you have a lot more competition. We came here with our own interesting sound, which is not necessarily tailored to or influenced by the type of music coming out of Brooklyn right now. [But in terms of] actually being a part of the scene and figuring out … where to play, how you can get paid, what the style is … we sort of did not have our finger on that pulse … at all. We’re here, and we hear about all these other cool bands in blogs, or newspapers, and then we’ll go and check out the show and there’s like nobody there. I perceive it to be kind of a weird mismatch between this band buzz and actual ability to play a good show. [Laughs]

Q. What’s the strangest Brooklyn show you’ve seen?

A. This isn’t the weirdest one — but I saw this band called Man Man at Music Hall of Williamsburg. They had like five members and 60 instruments on stage, all sort of glued together in this crazy way. Everyone was sitting behind a piano that had a trumpet glued to it.

Q. Have you had any crazy gig stories yourself?

A. We played a show with Laura Zax [SM ’10] where we weren’t able to get our set times right next to each other, and there was a band that played in between us. We saw [the band] loading in and they all had crazy costumes on … a bunch of people were wearing horse masks, one guy had a megaphone strapped to his head.

Q. Classic.

A. The weird thing is they were all like 40 years old. These weren’t a bunch of crazy kids — they were a bunch of old guys who had clearly been doing this for a while. One of our fans came up to us and was like, “Get the horse people off the stage!”

Q. Let’s talk about your music. You’ve been called the “Outkast of Brooklyn indie rock” by ‘Gigmaven.’ In three words, how would you define your style?

A. Boisterous. Honest. Intentional. Rowdy, actually.

Q. So four words, then.

A. Okay no, you can replace boisterous with rowdy. [Laughs]

Q. Your new EP, “Scattered Air,” was just released last week. What was your inspiration for the material?

A. When we first moved to New York, we went on a little songwriting retreat. We went up to — well, we’ve been telling people it was a cabin in the woods — but it was actually just an empty dorm [at UConn]. It was around the time that Bon Iver was really big … everyone was going crazy about the fact that he went to a cabin or something. We didn’t really conceive of the EP beforehand as a concept. We basically had like, eight songs and we picked four that we thought were going to be most interesting and most worthy of being on a record that would represent our sound. The EP ended up being pretty eclectic; we picked one song that was more our rock n’ roll tune, our kind of indie rock thing … our slow anthem and our weird jazz song.

Q. What does the song-writing process look like for you all?

A. We have played around with communal songwriting and it’s mostly been a failed experiment. The way we write songs is somebody will come up with the majority of it and we’ll build it up according to that person’s vision. Once the song is pretty much done, then we’ll go back and take it apart and reassemble it again with everyone putting more of their personal flair into it. None of the songs on the EP really have a traditional song structure. Some of the songs are missing a bridge, some don’t even have a chorus at all.

Q. Were any of the songs on the EP your personal vision?

A. The last song on the EP, actually, “Son.” It’s a totally weird departure from what most songs sound like. I’m a saxophone player and have sort of been picking up other instruments along the way — at a mediocre level. [Laughs] I’ve found that depending on what instrument you pick up to start writing a musical idea, you’ll come up with something very different just based on your technical ability and how the instrument is built. I was fooling around on the bass, trying to play “Summertime” by George Gershwin. I came up with this opening riff with chords, which, is not really something you’re supposed to do on a bass. This really dark and brooding feeling came out of it. I wrote the whole song in one night. The original concept for the song was extremely minimalist — just to have the bass playing and John singing. It ended up being this extended wordplay. It starts out talking about one thing in a sort of weird way that doesn’t make sense at first and then by the time you reach the end of the song, you realize that the whole song has been about something completely different. It’s been a son talking to his parents and apologizing for essentially being a fuck up.

Q. Looking back at lines like, “She’s a sweet banana” and “Shut up I said, get in my bed,” it seems like there’s been a pretty big shift in your lyrics over the years. What’s been behind it?

A. A lot of our old hits were just written at an earlier time in our life. It’s not like we were stupid kids, but definitely now when we sit down to write lyrics, we put a lot of thought into them. Our lyrics have evolved, just by virtue of kind of being out of college and I guess just being a little bit older and having a better grasp on how to use words. I don’t want to say we have better vocabularies now, because they’re not. I think it may just be that we’re now a little bit better equipped to put the right words to what we’re feeling. We’re a little bit more in touch with our feelings … in a mature way.

Q. So this is not just Yale nostalgia peeking through your music.

A. [Laughs] I must admit we’re definitely nostalgic for Yale, but there is a lot more going on there. I feel like a major lyrical theme in our songs is growing up and reconciling our aspirations and dreams with the realities of the grown-up world. They’re sort of hovering around this central question … whether or not there’s any reason to heed or respect to [these realities].

Q. On the subject of younger days, you and John-Michael performed as a duo acoustic set at Underbrook Coffeehouse back in September. What does Yale look like from the other side?

A. Well, Ezra Stiles got renovated so now I’m super jealous. [Laughs] No, but it’s refreshing to go back to Yale and see that everyone’s doing what they’re interested in and excited about. A lot of people now in the city have, you know, fallen into jobs and are just sort of chugging along, doing whatever it is they do for a profession. Many — but not all — of the people that we know [aren’t really doing] something they’re passionate about.

Q. I noticed you’re also selling the EP at your live gigs as a bandana stapled to a download card. Is there a story behind that?

A. The genesis for the bandana was when we were younger, as a band, we would always wear bandanas on stage. I’m not really sure where it came from — I guess we just thought bandanas were pretty badass or something. We went on a short tour in 2009 — just like a two week thing during the summer — and we would have bandana checks to make sure that everyone had their bandanas on at all times. We’ve been joking that people are going to need to buy a bandana player.

Q. I keep going back to this image of your ‘Bon-Iver-style retreat’ to the UConn dorm.

A. I know I’ve said that we’ve all gotten a little bit more serious, but when we get together as a band, we end up getting kind of wild and crazy and rowdy, or whatever. [Laughs] A lot of times when we’re around the apartment, we’ll sing our songs but replace the lyrics with either really inane or really utterly filthy lyrics. We’re a lot less mature than our real lyrics make us seem. There are a couple of videos of us from that retreat doing chicken fighting with, like, bottles that we found in the … it’s hard to explain.

Q. Speaking of goofing off… I noticed some talk of the Zombie (and Mayan) apocalypse posts on your Facebook and Twitter amidst the chaos of Sandy. Say it’s the end of the world. Where’s Great Caesar?

A. Well, we all [minus Manhattan-bound John-Michael] kind of thought that Sandy was going to be the Apocalypse, and the way we ended up spending that was sitting inside drinking whiskey.

Q. Whiskey?

A. Before every show, we pass around a flask of whiskey and talk about what we’re going to do better that we didn’t do last time. At the end of the day, the goal is that when we’re old and unable to play anymore, we’ll have the best possible stories to tell.

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