D.C.’s Caustic Casanova wage war against musical monotony

7seriousonlogThere’s a line where musical repetition can go from being effective, hypnotic or hooky to annoying. The whole theme-and-variation idea can lead people to get carried away with the variation part of the equation or to take the restatement of an idea to mind-numbing extremes. (I could just keep repeating different iterations of my point and you’d either find it compelling or idiotic.) The Washington D.C.-based band Caustic Casanova have found an interesting solution to the problem. They have it both ways. Their music is riff-based, with phrases that demand to be played over many times to drive home their power, and yet the trio knows enough to keep tweaking the details so that sometimes when a pattern comes back around, a listener will realize that they’ve heard it, but something’s different about it.

Caustic Casanova play Greensboro on Sept. 22 at New York Pizza. I spoke to the band — all three of them — while they had a little downtime in Tampa Bay, Florida, following a show there. Caustic Casanova are heavy, with all the regular signposts of heaviness — with hulking bass lines, pounding drums, and frequently abrasive guitar textures. But the band — particularly guitarist Andrew Yonki — mix in some poppy post-punk with their sludge and prog-metal inclinations. One can hear Yonki’s fondness for guitarists like the Edge and Johnny Marr, with his tolling delay-heavy sound. The fact that the band can evoke the vibe of the Melvins, Rush and U2 within a couple of minutes without sounding stitched-together or disjointed is a testament to their skill and to the painstaking way the trio assembles their material.

The band formed in 2005, with a different guitarist and singer who left the group in 2012. Bassist/lead singer Francis Beringer and drummer/vocalist Stefanie Zaenker considered carrying on as a drums-bass duo, but soon realized they wanted to wait for the right guitarist. Further complicating the band’s progress, Zaenker was seriously injured at the end of 2014, requiring multiple surgeries on her wrists and drawing the band’s future into question. That patience and willingness to wait it out seem to come through in Caustic Casanova’s music.

Beringer says the songs often come about collaboratively, and the band likes to let the writing process unfold organically.

“We’ve discovered that when something takes a long time, the ideas come eventually, maybe out of boredom,” he says.

A basic initial idea might exist as a sketch in practice for a couple months, and the band starts adjusting accents, adding slight twists on a riff or coming up with another section entirely. The approach seems to allow the band to create a spiraling complexity that doesn’t flaunt itself as complex. But it’s a long gestation process.

Deep familiarity with the core of a song allows for new parts to hatch without having to force it.

“When you know something so well, like the back of your hand, and then you decide to add a section: ‘Oh, what if it went backwards for two bars here?’ — it doesn’t seem nuts to you,” says Beringer.

Drummer Zaenker says that they’ve noticed that other bands seem to sometimes avoid repetition out of fear of monotony, perhaps, but end up missing out on the force of the effect.

“We’ve figured out ways to keep something repetitive but make it engaging,” she says.

One approach she takes on the drums is to vary the surfaces, even if she’s playing the same identical strokes and rhythms with her sticks, hitting cymbal bells instead toms will dramatically change the feel.

Zaenker and her bandmates seem to almost have a clinical precision when it comes to gauging the effectiveness of certain parts or textures or contrasts.

“If there’s a riff that we’re super stoked on, we’ll think, ‘Yes, the listener needs to hear that 16 times,’” she says.

And guitarist Yonki has a similar view with regard to mixing up the tone palette of his instrument. Listen, for example, at about the 4:45 mark in the song “The Forgiveness Machine” off of Caustic Casanova’s 2015 record Breaks. After some serious metal, there’s a moment where the song opens up and there’s a Nashville-style double-stop solo phrase on a Telecaster. It’s out of the blue, but awesome, and strangely ominous too.

“I really wanted twang,” says Yonki.

“We play the music that we want to hear,” he says, elaborating on the idea. “We want to hear country parts in stoner-metal songs. We want 12-minute space-rock two-hand tapping. We want all of that.”

The sensibility, to my ears, is defiant and punk rock, in that it’s about not being bound by a set of expectations or rules. The band doesn’t indulge in any whiplash stylistic mash-up just to be clever or show off their skills. There’s no reckless shoehorning of out-of-place parts for novelty’s sake. The variety makes its own organic sense within the context of the songs. A giddiness comes through in both the sense of possibility in the songs and in the titles and lyrics. (Song titles like “Squid Pro Quo” and “Titian Titillation” suggest a taste for absurdist puns and wordplay.) It’s nice that Caustic Casanova can make serious ambitious heavy music and still avoid the trap of humorlessness.

If there’s a lightness in the band’s attitude, Caustic Casanova still approach the business of playing shows and entertaining people with a sense of purpose.

“Play the songs properly — yeah — but there’s got to be more to it than that,” says Yonki. “There’s a lot of high energy antics going on on stage. What’s the point if you’re not going to just go nuts on stage? For me, playing live, there’s a lot of headbanging, throwing my back and my arms and my legs into what I’m doing. I’m playing the guitar with my whole body.”
When, on occasion, all of that effort doesn’t engage an audience, Yonki adopts a battlefield mentality from the stage.

“If the crowd is standing there looking bored, I kind of view it as a declaration of war.”

Wanna go? Caustic Casanova play New York Pizza, 337 Tate St., Greensboro, Thursday, Sept. 22, with Harrison Ford Mustang and The Kneads.