Caveman’s Lead Singer Never Stopped Thinking His Band Would Be ‘The Biggest Thing’

Caveman was one of the big breakout bands from the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. Since then, the band has received some good press for its debut album, Coco Beware, released later that year and its eponymous follow-up record released earlier this year. NPR described Caveman’s music as being “full of subtlety and space and melodies you can carry around in your head,” and The New York Times compared the band to The Beach Boys.

While Caveman certainly has a long way to go to achieve the success of an era-defining band like The Beach Boys, lead singer Matt Iwanusa (center in the image above) has always had his mind set on being, as he puts it, “the biggest thing.”

“You just have to have that attitude,” Iwanusa told Opening Lines in an interview in March, shortly after their second album was released. “I’m always forever thinking that I’m going to be doing the biggest thing. If you don’t believe you’re going to be the biggest thing, then why are you doing it?”

Iwanusa talked with Opening Lines about his early days singing in the Metropolitan Opera, why his teachers urged his parents to let him stay in a band and how growing up in New York shaped the way he approaches the music industry.

Opening Lines: When did you first get interested in music?

Iwanusa: I guess my first experience with music was when I was a kid. My parents were musicians. I moved to New York when I was really young. My mom got my sister and I into the children’s chorus at the Metropolitan Opera and I started doing singing. That inspired me to really care about music and think about it in a professional way.

OL: Your first gig was in the Metropolitan Opera? Not bad. How long did that go on for?

Iwanusa: I did that from like 6 or 7 until I was probably like 13. The first one I was in was called La Tosca, then La Bohème. I was in a lot. They had so many girls in the choir so they would always put me in.

OL: When did you shift from singing in the opera to singing in a rock band?

Our teachers called our parents saying we were getting into school on time. At the time, we were staying at each other’s houses a lot, writing songs all night. They said, “Maybe you should let them keep doing that…”

Iwanusa:  I went to a private school in Manhattan that at the time wasn’t focused on any type of art, but a few years into it they started focusing on the arts for the kids and towards the end, they had all these school bands playing. I played in a band in middle school called Antishock. I played drums, nothing serious really. We just played covers and tried writing stuff. We had a singer. He was a nice dude, but it wasn’t working, so we just started writing instrumental songs. Then in high school, Jimmy [Carbonetti, Caveman’s guitar player] and I started playing music together. We did mostly comedy music, mostly funny, stupid songs.

OL: Can you give us an example of one of those early “funny, stupid” songs?

Iwanusa: It was just kind of talking about stupid things. making jokes about kids we were in school with. There was this story about these two kids who were kind of crazy kids in our school and they got caught up in the hallway hooking up or something. We wrote this song about them that was kind of an inside joke, but all the kids knew it. We got asked to play all these talent shows and we probably could have gotten in trouble.

OL: Were you parents and teachers supportive of you and Jimmy being in a band?

Iwanusa: At the time everyone was just kind of happy that we were doing something creative and working on music. There was definitely a weird moment. Our teachers called our parents saying we were getting into school on time. At the time, we were staying at each other’s houses a lot, writing songs all night. They said, “Maybe you should let them keep doing that…”

OL: When did you start writing more serious songs?

Iwanusa: Our first serious song was about a kid in our school who had gone through some kind of traumatic issue. It was definitely a moment that hit everybody in the school since it was a small school. I remember being like, “Hey I wrote this song,” and we’d play it for other friends at the school and they would be like, “Is that about this and this?” Once we did that, we realized all we wanted to do was write serious stuff.

OL: New York is often an intimidating music scene for bands to break into. How did growing up in the city impact the way you approached the music scene there and the music business in general?

I’m always forever thinking that I’m going to be doing the biggest thing. If you don’t believe you’re going to be the biggest thing, then why are you doing it?

Iwanusa: For us, it was that we had the attitude, maybe in a stupid way. We’d be out when we were 16 going to clubs, talking to these people. We had no fear to tell them that this is our band, this is what we’re doing — even with our comedy band. We went to the Video Music Awards because Jimmy’s brother was able to hook us up and we ended up hanging out with Nappy Roots. We were able to carry our own and partied with the guys, talking to them about music.

We always kind of went for it. We weren’t too scared of talking to people and I think growing up in New York had a big part in that. I remember specifically going into the Video Music Awards that was at Radio City when The Strokes were getting popular, and we were looking up and they were on a balcony doing an interview. They’re huge, that’s so cool, but they’re also right there. What’s the difference between being up there and being down there? You just have to have that attitude. I’m always forever thinking that I’m going to be doing the biggest thing. If you don’t believe you’re going to be the biggest thing, then why are you doing it?

OL: What was the moment when you felt like Caveman really had made it as a band?

Iwanusa: I think a personal breakthrough is when six hours before it came out, I heard we were going to get a New York Times review. That felt like a real milestone for me. That was a moment when I felt like a lot of cool stuff was already happening and at the time I was a little desensitized to everything, and then that hit it and it was like, oh shit this is really cool.

OL: What advice would you give other up-and-coming musicians?

Iwanusa: Sometimes you can easily get discouraged about llittle things here and there that are stupid. Everyone has their opinion. I don’t believe that you need to make the count right away or else. People write music forever and dont get the recognition until their dead. I think the Internet maybe does that: You feel like it’s out in the world, it’s on my Facebook, how come only 100 people listened to it? You got to keep pushing. Who cares? That’s how I feel.

Image courtesy of Instagram, cavemanband

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