An Interview with
Elaine diFalco

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 14, 2005

Elaine diFalco's vocals and keyboards (there's also a nice accordion) are for this writer a big part of the charm emanating from the CDs recorded by US group Caveman Shoestore (it's Caveman Hughscore for those records recorded with bassist/composer Hugh Hopper): a group whose themes - sometimes in odd time signatures - are played with a kinda-new-waver pronunciation, where diFalco has very good companions in bass player Fred Chalenor and drummer Henry Franzoni.

Super Sale is their most recent CD. Since in the past I had read a couple of interviews with Fred Chalenor but not a single one with Elaine diFalco, I decided to get in touch with her in order to ask her some questions. She agreed. The interview was conducted via e-mail, last week.

Since I know literally nothing about your background, I'd like to know about how you first started to develop an interest in music, your early influences, likes/dislikes when it came to musical instruments... you know, the usual stuff.

I'm the youngest in a large family that is very musical. There was a piano in the house and I just discovered it at a very young age. I remember being excited when I'd finally grown tall enough to reach the sustain pedal, so I was pretty small when I started. I never took lessons as a kid. I played entirely by ear.

Classical music was a very big influence when I was young. I used to love it on rare occasions when my mom would play records, usually when we had company over. I remember noticing the music for old cartoons and thinking it was amazing that somebody would actually write notes for people to play things like that.

My brother Dave had the biggest influence on me as a kid though. He's 11 years older than me and had the most eclectic taste of any of my siblings. He turned me on to Zappa, the Mills Brothers, The Residents, Billie Holiday, all kinds of stuff. He really expanded my ear. I loved Elvis Costello.

I ran away from home when I was 14 and started playing in bands. I played with guys all about a good ten years older than me. Excellent musicians. They turned me on to Gentle Giant, Dixie Dregs, Jan Hammer... stuff in that world. This is in Phoenix in the 80's where there happened to be a pretty thriving punk community, so that had an impact on me for sure. I played a lot in those days in a few different bands. Kill Everyone was the first band, then Syneasthesia, Almighty Sphincter, and God Wads. For a punk scene there was a lot of melody going on, and quite a variety of bands were playing all the time. There is now a website that features many of the old flyers from that era in Phoenix.

I'd like to know about the way Caveman Shoestore were formed - and about the group's first two albums, Master Cylinder and Flux.

I moved to Portland from Phoenix with the GodWads in early 1990. I met Fred and Henry at a show we did called the AIMFest (Amature Independent Music). I think there was only one of those. They were playing as a duo and I thought they were great. I kept thinking they needed a voice to help tie it together. They were throwing notes everywhere!!! I guess they were thinking that too, because they asked the following week to join their band!!!

Master Cylinder was a great experience. A wonderful person by the name of Alessandro Monti flew out from Italy to help produce it. I've lost touch with him, so I hope someday to find him and hear about what he's up to.

For Flux we had found Amy DeVargas who played a mean bass and was a terrific songwriter. I found it wonderful to finally sing harmonies with someone. It is a whole other ball game to sing back-up parts, and that music allowed for a lot of experimentation in that department. I loved the fact that we had two basses and no guitars. A great musician from New York by the name of Jimi Zhivago came out to help us produce it. He was a great producer and had captured a nice sound for Flux. He was constantly battling Fred over the issue of putting reverb on the vocals. Fred was adamant that he did NOT want reverb all over everything. Jimi I think added a wee tiny bit somehow when he brought it in for mastering. It was extremely subtle but Fred still noticed. I tend to agree with Fred. I like dryer vocals.

Would you mind talking about the way the group started their collaboration with Hugh Hopper?

Hugh read about Fred playing fuzz bass in Musiche magazine. He sent Fred a note. All it said was "Fred, Musiche Magazine accuses you of playing fuzz bass. Could this be true?". Fred was very excited when he received that in the mail. He responded by asking for the music for Sliding Dogs which Caveman started to play. We also recorded a song Fred wrote for Hugh called The Hugest Hopper which was released on a compilation called This Is PDX... I think. I can't remember. I don't have a copy of it and it's been years since I heard it. I can't even remember the name of the label. I'm sure Fred might have held on to one. (It didn't make it into my collection when we split up!!) Then one day Hugh sent us a batch of great music and said we were free to have our way with it. That led to us making records with him.

I'd like to know your opinion about certain aspects of the work for each of the three CDs you recorded with Hugh Hopper - like, different producers, different studios, specific problems, etc.

Well, the first one, Caveman Hughscore, we were in a really fancy schmancy studio called Sound Impressions. We didn't really have a producer for that record. We just sort of worked with the engineer who had worked with us on the previous Caveman album Flux, Nick Kellogg. He was really great to work with. He seemed to enjoy himself quite a bit. That album sounds very raw to me.

HighSpotParadox we made in Seattle as opposed to Portland. Unfortunately, we were not working with Henry at that time, but we did have another really wonderful drummer Will Dowd who has much credit to his name. Wayne Horvitz produced that record. You can definitely hear his touch, but Tucker Martine had a WHOLE lot to do with how that album ended up sounding. Fred and I really changed the way some of the songs were, too. We added bridges or arranged things or chopped them up into fragments and piece-mealed them back together.

Delta Flora was the first recording where Hugh stayed in England. We recorded our basic tracks at Tucker's on tape (his studio is named Flora), transferred it to ADAT's then I flew to England and we recorded at Delta Studio which is near where Hugh lives.

As you can see the album was named after the two studios where it was recorded. HighSpotParadox is named after the places we ate for breakfast when we made that record. Hugh came up with that idea.

You play accordion and various keyboards, most of them of "classic vintage", such as Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, Hammond B3, and the like. Would you mind talking about the way you see those - mechanical - keyboards as opposed to software-based, plug-in type instruments?

I think I've always preferred the organic quality of vintage keyboards and real pianos from my classical foundation. There is a technician who was servicing my Rhodes who explained that I probably desire the physical properties of instruments that have sympathetic resonances, the harmonic series. Digital instruments don't have that. I also love the fatter warmer sound of analogue synths. They just seem to make a really nice WOOF! However, Fred has been collecting a lot of synthesizers, digital as well as analogue and I've just used them on our upcoming album Frankensongs, so I've just branched out!!!

On Delta Flora there's a very nice song you penned, November. Are there any songs out there that you consider as very good right now?

Thank you.

I absolutely LOVE Robert Wyatt's Cuckooland. I was stunned by Foreign Accents. I had to stop everything I was doing and I played it over and over and over. In fact, I recorded my own version of it with my machine for fun one afternoon. I busted out my violin (which I have never played), my Tibetan bell, I filled all 16 tracks on my machine! I played both versions for a dear friend of mine who is Japanese. Her grandparents survived the war and never ever speak of it. It made her weep to hear it. That song is very powerful.

It has been said that nowadays people have much shorter attention spans when compared to past decades, this factor being considered a serious obstacle for the appreciation of "difficult music" in the way it was somewhat common, say, back in the days of "progressive". Judging from your personal experience, how do you see this topic?

I think there will always be people who will seek out the music that they need.

I suppose the fact that it's easier for any Joe Blow to make a record now, as opposed to past decades, has greatly increased the amount of crap that is out there. Therefore, it seems overwhelming to wade through what's out there to find something you can chew on. Perhaps that has changed how much patience people have with their listening habits.

However, Joni Mitchell has pointed out very eloquently that music from her heyday had so much more integrity. She said the muse is missing from music and all you have now is "ic". Perhaps, the airwaves are oversaturated with music for the masses, and in America, at least, that means the lowest common denominator of society. I very rarely listen to the radio, but when I do I can't handle the stuff I hear. It's all formulated schlock. Maybe I should try harder, but I don't have the patience!!! HA HA!!

I guess bottom line is though, people will respond to what resonates with them personally. Provided you can get your music to your select audience, there will always be someone out there who will spend the time to listen. Internet and technology can have an impact on this.

Back to Caveman Shoestore: Would you mind talking about the new album, Super Sale? (By the way, credits for the songs don't make clear who did what.)

Well, generally speaking, the name listed first is who made the nucleus of the song, and the names listed afterward made considerable compositional contributions to how it ended up. Unless, of course, we all co-wrote it... then it's whatever.

Since I live in California and at the time of the recording Fred lived in Seattle and Henry lived in Portland... we made the record via correspondence. Fred would drive down to Portland, rehearse with Henry, then send me a recording. I would then practice/develop my part and eventually I flew up to Seattle and record the basics. Then the roughs I'd load into my machine and come up with lyrics (Henry sent me some ideas which I would work from and add to). I made vocal demos for most of them which sound REALLY different in some cases because they're pretty naked.

Nowadays the trend is to use more and more compression in the overall sound of a record - as well as on vocals, not to mention pitch-correction programs that are commonly referred to with the term "autotune". As a singer, what's your perception of this trend - and of the way music actually sounds?

As you can very likely hear... no pitch corrections were going on that I heard. Yup... I'm pretty much out there on that limb.

Perhaps the compression is added during the mastering process. But I'm not aware of the increased use of it on any of our recordings.

The usual final question about future plans - group and solo.

Well, we are currently working on an album called Frankensongs. I have to fly up to record my vocals soon. In fact, I have to move back up there. Fred and I were married and we split up. I moved to California to go to school. Well, I'm done with school... time to go back to being a musician.

Fred is incredibly supportive and obviously still my best buddy. We have plans to make a whole bunch of music when I get back up there. I have a huge body of music I've composed for a quintet. He's already lined up some musicians for that project.

I also have an orchestral project I'm working on for a theatrical piece based on historical research I'm doing. I don't want to say much more about that, but I'm really excited about it.

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Dec. 14, 2005