Photos: Madeline Cohen
Brian Cavender is a producer from Denver, Colorado. He’s best known for his early 2000s recordings as Seafoam (released via Guidance Recordings, Straylight Recordings, and Lo-Rise Recordings), as well as numerous recent works released on contemporary labels from around the world (including Denver’s own Deep Club). He participated in the early 2000s Denver musical collective milehighhouse, along with family members Doug (ILK), Matt (The Missing Link), and Brad (Space Is The Place) Cavender.
Obviously you’ve got a hyper-musical family - what was the origin of that?
You know, Doug’s the oldest, Matt’s the youngest. It was pretty much Doug that got all of us into it. He’s been pretty much the brainchild for all of us, growing up. Musically, he would turn us onto cool bands that he liked, which were off the beaten path, which I liked. He was big into the New Wave scene, and subsequently myself and Matt were. Then we got into the industrial stuff, and in our early 20s Doug started buying gear. It just kind of developed from there, late ‘89, early 90s, ‘92 was when it started to blossom.
Do you have memories of music being played around you before you were necessarily opting-in?
My dad had a bunch of vinyl records, but he never really listened to that stuff anymore - he kind of outgrew it. I remember when he sold all of his vinyl, it was kind of a sad day [laughs]. But yeah, he liked The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that. But there was never really a lot of music playing in our house, not at all. But at the same time, my parents encouraged that - they bought us all stereos, and CDs or records or whatever at the time. If we wanted to listen to music, they didn’t discourage that at all. So that was a good thing.
Was there a point at which you thought a generation gap emerged between you and your parents, taste-wise?
Yeah, they definitely didn’t connect with the dance stuff at all. I think my dad basically just thought, oh, anybody could do that [laughs]. Yeah, that’s true, but… to do it well? That’s a different story. But like I said, he never discouraged it, and like I said my parents were always very open about that. If that’s what you want to do, we’re not gonna stop you.
How did you shift from being a listener to a performer?
Well, that was probably the early 90s, ‘92 maybe? I was in the military - I was in the Navy for four years, and when I got out was where it really started to build. I moved to Seattle after that with a girlfriend, kind of fell out of it for a while, but then ‘99 is when it really started to pick up. Stretch 2 Activate happened at that time, I started gathering more gear and really kind of promoting myself. I remember going down to the post office with a tape that I’d send off to Guidance Recordings in Chicago, then getting the call back like “oh man, yes!”
Did anything in particular draw you to the Navy?
My brother had joined; he’d come back super-tan, talking about meeting girls, this and that, and there was a certain romance to it. And I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do - we had a little bit of money saved up in the family, but not enough to pay for a four-year degree. So the G.I. Bill was a big part of that. But I was out of there, you know - four years [whistles] I’m done. Boot camp was in San Diego - I was a corpsman, a medic, and then I did training in San Diego as well. And then I was recruited by the Marines to be a corpsman with them, so I was in their field medical service school, at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. That was a hell of an experience, really intense. But it was cool, looking back on it; I was in good shape, we did a lot of combat-related hikes. We’d be out for weeks on end with just backpacks, kinda reminded me of being a kid. The meals were MREs, in this shrunk-wrapped plastic bag with dehydrated fruit, some kind of beef patty. The packaging was like a prosthetic brown, it was ridiculous. But, you know, at the time you’re out there with it, delicious. Some were more popular than others; there was a commodity base, you know, people were trading [laughs]. I remember it came with this little heat puck which would stay lit for a certain amount of time so you could heat up your meat on top of this little makeshift grill that came inside the MRE. Looking back on it, it was cool; at the time, it was pretty tough.
Is that related at all to the name Seafoam?
Seafoam, basically, it’s a combination of things really. I had a dream about this enormous layer of what appeared to be foam, over the water or a beach of some kind. And we were all kind of partying on top of it. It was a combination of that, and there was a band called Seefeel, a combination of both of those that led to the name.
How old were you when you had this dream?
Probably 22, 23, maybe? Definitely when the Seefeel music was coming out, ‘93, ‘94 time period.
That’s when you were in Seattle? How’d you find it there?
You know, the first time I was there, when I was in the military - I was stationed at Port Orchard, right across Puget Sound. I would go over there as a young man in the Navy, just eat at restaurants, dick around, stuff like that. Nothing real music-related, mostly bar stuff. But then I went back with my girlfriend - this was ‘96, ‘97, before all this stuff kind of started to snowball - this was when I had the conversation with the Catflap guy, Greg, about putting music out. He said he wanted to start this label, Catflap, and he wanted me to be the first release. So this was a year and half or so after I’d moved there, and I decided to move back and try and get the ball rolling. But as far as the music scene in Seattle, there were a couple clubs we went to, but we found it kind of hard to connect with people there. There was a lot of heroin use at the time, which we just weren’t into, obviously. So a lot of friends that we did meet were, you know, just deadbeats. There wasn’t really a whole lot there for me, musically. There was one night there that was really cool, the DJ’s name was Brian and it was called Ignite, or something. Other than that, I didn’t really feel a good vibe there.
And at this point, you were known to Greg as a guy who was just in the shop all the time, buying music?
Yeah, exactly. It was a friend of a friend, I actually met him through Doug. There was a clothing store, in front of it, really hip spot. Cool clothing store, record store in the back - that was the place to be, in terms of the underground dance scene.
Do you like performing?
It’s been a while since I’ve done it, but yeah. Seeing the crowd get into it can kind of boost your ego, it can be fun.
Were you much of a dancer ever, or did you prefer to be behind the decks?
Kind of the middle, right in the middle, yeah. Be on the outskirts, you know, milling about. Socializing, but, once in a while if I heard a really good song, I’d go out and dance [laughs].
Growing up in Colorado, did you travel around much, or have this strong sense of a state identity?
Yeah, we’d do road trips. My cousin Brad, his parents lived in Omaha, Nebraska [laughs]. But they lived right on a lake, and they had boats, jet skis, and all that shit. Camping stuff in Colorado, stuff like that. I think my dad definitely did, he melded in well with Colorado - he loved to ski, hike, and all that stuff, so he was really at home when we moved out here.
Where’d you move from?
Illinois. Just kind of the outskirts of Chicago.
Did you have roots or connections there that came back for the Guidance stuff, or was it just coincidental?
Not really - I think it was just the music. I knew people out there that I would visit - if I was in Chicago for a music thing, I’d go visit, you know, Aunt Jeannette or whoever [laughs].
How’d you spend your time growing up?
We did a lot of camping, I was into sports. I played football, was in track in high school. But that was only for a couple years, freshman and sophomore; I met a girl, and that was kind of it. She was my life, for a while. But as a kid, lots of camping with the family, roadtrips. Obviously music, buying records and tapes.
What was the first concert you went to, or maybe the first you went to by choice?
Let me think - that’s a good question, I want to answer this accurately. I may have went to some outdoor events with my parents, but I don’t know who they were. You know, one of the first concerts as an adult was The Art of Noise. They played with Tackhead or something, at a place over off Evans and Monaco. It’s a Walgreens now, it was called the Rainbow… something. Rainbow Music Hall, or something like that. But that was a cool fucking show, man. That was pre- all of this stuff, I was blown away. I’m getting chills just thinking about it. (For much more on Tackhead, see this yet-to-be-published piece from friend of the blog h.d. angel.)
Was Denver on the map, touring-wise, for that scene?
Yeah! Depeche Mode played here at Red Rocks, back in ‘87… good show. What else did I see? At that time, Denver wasn’t a big city, but definitely one of the major cities in the US. Good resting point.
Where in town did you grow up?
I grew up in Aurora. Was in Congress Park, lived there for a little while, my brother Doug and Tom Hoch lived in a loft on Larimer - they lived in Paris Hotel for a little bit, so I spent a bit of time there. I lived with Josh Ivy; he was a downtempo and breaks DJ from Denver. He and I lived in Cap Hill area. Definitely very rooted in Denver, you know, “I’m never moving outta Denver!” [laughs]. I think there used to be a lot more mom and pop type shops, or clubs and bars. It seems like it’s a lot more corporate now, downtown.
Did you do a lot of touring ever?
Not really. There was a small, kind of West Coast tour I remember doing with Jon Nedza, who is Community Recordings. My friend Tom Hoch kind of organized and orchestrated the whole thing. Pete… Wall, I think his name was, he was a saxophone and flute player, he joined us for the tour and did his live stuff on top. He was amazingly talented, he could just come up with any riff and match the key. Pretty much just improvised. We traveled up and down the West Coast for a few weeks, played a few gigs, and then I’ve done a couple gigs here in Colorado. I think the last gig I did was probably the most fun, a downtempo set. That’s more what I’m getting into these days, let’s get really with with slower-tempo music.
When was that?
It was somewhere in the warehouse district, 29th and Larimer. But it’s been probably twenty years, 2002 or 2003 maybe?
What’d you think of the west coast? Was there any kind of musical kinship?
You know, yeah - I came back, and started writing music immediately. I was so blown away by a lot of the acts I saw out there. I wrote my third release on Guidance within three months, sent it off and they were like “oh, this is awesome, we want it.” It really helped inspire that - that trip particularly was really influential in terms of my writing at that time.
Were you playing at these abandoned warehouses, 6am, or more like club settings?
A little bit of both, on the tour, a little bit of both. Tom’s got friends all over the country, so he was able to cook up some pretty good gigs, but some of ‘em were in smaller, kind of dive bars. It depended on the night.
What was the nature of a Guidance-type record deal at that time? Were you in line for residuals, artist development..?
You know, they paid a lump sum for each release, which wasn’t a lot. I never saw royalties from that. I don’t know if they got to the point where they had to pay me or not, but I don’t think so. That’s such a small subculture, you’re not gonna get rich from doing this stuff. Not that I haven’t made money, and put it all back into my studio, but it’s not something I could do full-time and survive on. I don’t think it ever was; definitely when I came back from the tour of the West Coast, we all came back broke, tired, and worn out, like “I don’t know if I can do this for a living.” Maybe if I put more time and energy into it, I could grow as more of a playing out artist, but I’m just not interested in that anymore.
Did you ever feel as though you had the opportunity to sell out?
No, I don’t think so - I mean, I can’t think of a scenario that would fit that description. I would’ve, if it was there; I would’ve sold out in a heart- no, I’m kidding [laughs].
Would you say you had ambitions, rigid goals for the music stuff?
Not really. My goal was, originally, to just have music and be able to create it. And that kind of developed, the more I went out into clubs and met people, the goal was to put something out. It just kind of happened by chance, more than anything, it was the Stretch 2 Activate thing with Greg that kind of started it, but he’d approached me. Catflap was the store on Broadway and something, Greg… what was his last name, I forget. We had a falling out, so I haven’t talked to him in a while.
Infrastructurally, what were the shops supporting the existence of a scene in Denver?
Definitely Catflap… there was Twist and Shout, in its infantile stages. It was very small, back in the day [laughs]. There were little hotspots here and there where people would throw parties, there were different collectives, including milehighhouse. There were a couple collectives out in Boulder that threw parties, DJs and producers that were part of that. We all kind of mingled together and swapped, you know, stories. That was kind of the big thing, was the collectives - Mother Earth Sound System was one of them, like I said milehighhouse. That was one of the driving forces behind the dance scene.
What were the events that you really enjoyed going to - was there a common denominator?
Definitely! The mountain parties… what were those called? Blue moon… Full Moon parties! Those were fucking amazing. Those definitely helped inspire milehighhouse. They were parties that they threw up in the mountains, some remote location out there somewhere. Far as I know, most of the time it wasn’t legal, so that kind of added to the element a little bit. But you know, it’s outside, there’s no ambient light from the cities, you see these amazing stars with cool house music playing, cool people there. Those were definitely the most fun. And of course, milehigh parties were fun too.
Would this scene have continued to operate if milehighhouse had ceased operations for a bit, or was it all hands on deck just to keep it afloat?
Yeah, probably. We all definitely thrived off each other, in terms of who’s going to throw the biggest parties, have the best DJs, best sound systems [laughs]. But in a healthily competitive kind of way - it was a good thing, there was no animosity between any of the different collectives.
The milehighhouse stuff was a pretty natural progression from what you guys were already doing - was it easier or harder than you expected, making the whole thing happen?
You know, Tom Hoch was kind of the brainchild behind that, so he did a lot of that work himself. He’s a very sociable guy, so he was able to connect with people all over. I showed up to play my music and party [laughs], and that was pretty much it. And I put releases out on milehighhouse, but it was pretty much Tom who kept that whole ball rolling. We helped bring beer and set up tents, but he was the mastermind. It was kind of like the… I don’t want to say, like, rockabilly, but there was definitely more of an alternative rock vibe in Denver back then. The dance stuff was pretty underground, pretty minimal at that time.
What was a good showing for an event, in terms of attendance?
300 people. That was a good show, 300 people, that was good.
Did you find yourself attuned to stuff coming out of any specific region, specific labels?
Yeah, I’ve always been a fan of German music, coming out of Berlin. I vibe with a lot of the artists putting music out, and Romania has a lot of cool minimal house stuff coming out right now. I’m actually friends with a couple of DJs out there, they’ve got some really cool, quirky shit coming out. That’s what I’ve been trying to get into, really weird shit, just to be different, you know?
Is it odd having such a following in Central Europe specifically?
Absolutely - I didn’t really realize that until the Catflap guy contacted me in 2016, and was like “you have no idea how big your name is in Europe right now.” Sure enough, like clockwork, every month - “I’m so-and-so from this label, vinyl-only, we want to put out some of your stuff!” Within four or five years, I had more releases out than I ever did back in the day. It was definitely an ego booster, and it definitely got me revitalized, I didn’t really do anything - well, I’d sit in my studio, and kind of geek around with stuff, but I never really promoted my stuff or put out anything for many years. Now it’s kind of leveling off a bit, but I’m venturing into different things, like soundtracks or ambient stuff… more kind of my speed now [laughs].
What had caused you to taper off your output around ‘05, ‘06?
I started working, got in a professional job, I got married, had kids, stuff like that. That definitely slowed it down. But I was just doing other things. I was doing a lot of climbing in Utah, canyoneering, and doing more outdoor stuff and less hunkered-down, introverted in the studio [laughs]. So that was a big part of it - many, many trips to the Canyonlands in Utah.
What was the difference in mindset between coming down here noodling vs. coming down here with the intention to put out a record?
It’s definitely a different frame of mind - you think about what people are gonna like, what’s gonna be a sound that will be able to appeal to a broad audience, as opposed to “I’m gonna get weird and start writing some cool ambient stuff.” Tweaking more knobs and running stuff through processors a lot more, sort of like an Aphex Twin world [laughs].
Is there a sort of compromise inherent to the productive mode, then?
Yeah, you know it’s funny - the songs that I write that I think everybody is gonna like… nobody likes ‘em [laughs]. And the songs that I write that are, eh, we’ll see if they like it, everybody likes those. It’s really hard to gauge that, I guess, because everybody has a different ear. There’s kind of a standard format, the formulaic house music sound, but I just make music, put it out, and just see who wants to eat it.
Did you find there there was a sort of tension between the sort of professional career path and the music stuff, besides the obvious earlier bedtime on weeknights?
You know, it was actually kind of a welcome change, Corrigan. I didn’t want to go down that path of drugs and alcohol abuse, all that shit, and honestly I think I could’ve. It was almost an intentional separation from that, and I got a lot of kickback from friends - “you never go out anymore, c’mon!” It was almost subconscious, maybe, but an intentional separation from that.
At the point at which you started tapering off your output, were you satisfied with your musical career to that point?
Not really, because, you know, it’s embedded in me now, doing music like this. And it is very cathartic for me, on top of that. So there was some, you know, “why am I even doing this?” I want this stuff to leave my studio, and I want people to hear this. So I was getting a little discouraged, I think - I didn’t want to go to the clubs to promote myself, I didn’t want to go out and party with people, but I still wanted my presence to be there in a musical sense. It was challenging, for sure.
How would you describe your musical self-image?
Oh, man. I guess… organic, maybe? Quirky, is definitely the style that I’ve been trying to do more lately. But I’m obviously known for house music, deep house, and I’m ok with that moniker. It’s very cathartic for me; it’s my therapy for sure. Music, drumming - I’ve got a couple drum sets that I play on. It’s very cathartic, to be submerged in this world. You’ve gotta be in the right mood - you’ve gotta be in that creative zone - but it’s definitely very, very therapeutic for me.
Did you pick up drums more recently, or was that a childhood thing?
Not childhood, definitely as an adult. I was always kind of tappin’ on stuff, dickin’ around… my wife hates it [laughs]. I was always doing that, and it was John actually, from Annex of Soul, that said “you know I’ve got a drum set - why don’t you come over and try playing it?” He got me set up and went off and did something for a couple hours, and once he got back I had a pretty basic beat going. He was like “I knew it, I fuckin’ knew it!” I’ve kind of plateaued in terms of my skill level - until I take a lesson I probably won’t get better - but it’s definitely very cathartic. I kinda developed it from there, got to the point where I can play pretty well. But not to the point where somebody’s gonna come in and go “damn!” [laughs]. I can keep a basic beat, do a couple fills here and there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a movie called Whiplash... holy shit, definitely see it, Corrigan. There’s a drum solo he does at the end that’s just amazing. I want to get to that point. I don’t want to be Buddy Rich, obviously, because he’s untouchable, but just to make someone go “damn…” is where I want to go to.
What was the music you were making in the early 90s like?
I had a couple of pieces of gear that I kind of tinkered around on, nothing serious. It was dance music for sure - I listened to a lot of Massive Attack back then, so a lot of stuff like that, more of the broken beat stuff. My girlfriend at the time sang, so we did a lot of coordinating together. I was just dinking around - nothing really solid, nothing was ever recorded. I think we recorded one song with my girlfriend, but other than that, nothing really solid.
Do you have non-dance music influences that you consider pretty central?
Yeah, absolutely. I love soul music, I like a lot of Brian Eno, ambient stuff. Very, very eclectic tastes for sure - everything from The Neville Brothers to Aphex Twin. Definitely a soul music guy, though - I can sing, at least I think I can, anyway, so I definitely have that bug. I want to throw down some cool vocals; haven’t done it yet, haven’t had the courage.
Hardware-wise, did any of your equipment have characteristics or constraints that you think directed your composition?
Yeah, there was a keyboard made by Roland, a Jupiter 2008, I think? And this is the JP-08 (plays a chord), which is the analog copy of that keyboard from back in the ‘70s. So I definitely sold that, but re-bought it at a much cheaper price in this little box. Roland’s made all these re-creations of their old classic synthesizers and drum machines; this is an analog copy of the Roland 808.
Were you just going to Guitar Center and playing around with stuff, or ordering from catalogs, I guess, “sound unheard?”
A lot of stuff was word-of-mouth, a friend would have something and say “you’ve gotta check out this keyboard, or that drum machine,” or whatever. But yeah, some of the stuff I’d go into Sound Town, which was a huge music store, or Guitar Center, start messing around with whatever they had there.
You’d said the Catflap guy first clued you into the resurgence of interest in your music, but do you have theories about why that may have come back around at a particular time?
I think it was just the fact that that time period was just coming back into play - that kinda, there’s even sample CDs that you can buy of “the ‘90s house sound,” “lo-fi house.”
Did you think of your music as being low fidelity at the time? Were you conscious of hardware or technical limitations on some greater production value you were trying to reach?
That’s just the way it turned out - that’s the gear that we had, mastering techniques that we used at the time. It’s sort of like… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Guided By Voices, their older stuff was super distorted and high-noise. People loved it, it was awesome. And then they started to kind of polish up their sound, and nobody liked it [laughs]. So it’s a similar kind of concept as that. Probably when I started, yeah. But I got to the point where, if I wanted to do it, I was gonna figure out how to do it. I was gonna get whatever I needed to make it happen. You know, outside of a super-expensive processor or keyboard. And that’s one of the things I really like about Reason - I haven’t found anything with Reason that I’ve wanted to do, but haven’t been able to do. And I found that with Ableton, I don’t know how to do this one little thing.
I don’t think I ever reached my limits in terms of equipment, but… I don’t know, man, I think it’s some kind of built-in, subconscious memory that I have. I listened to a lot of Cabaret Voltaire, some of the old industrial stuff like Front 242, and it’s this little bug in my brain that’s really just drawn to that. I love doing more soulful stuff and deep house, but the “tech” element of it, I love that shit. I feel like from a composing standpoint, you can go outside of the 4/4 boundaries a little bit more, there’s less melody confining you to one chord progression or stretch of notes.
How have you found the community of, I think, largely European boutique reissue labels?
You know, most of the folks that I’ve dealt with are really cool. One in particular is Jean, from Rue de Plaisance in France. He’s a super-cool guy, very friendly and generous. I was paid well from him, and then the record sold well, so I was paid more than I’ve gotten from any other label. He’s a really good guy, invited me out there a few times. His mom owns kind of a boutique bakery candy store in France, in Paris, and he said he works there occasionally. With one of my releases he sent out a bunch of French candies, it was really cool. And for the most part, I’ve had good luck. Some of ‘em haven’t paid me, yet, but I’m working on that [laughs]. And that’s not why I do it - it’s nice to get paid for my work, but that’s not the reason I do it.
Did you ever have a sense of whether your older stuff had sold well when it was put out initially?
I think so, yeah. I don’t remember having any kind of an issue with that. There’s only been a couple of labels that asked for second releases from me, but I’m ok with that. I think a lot of the stuff I’m doing now is different than what it was in the past; which is good, because I’ve developed more fans in that regard, but lost some on the other end. I’ve been turned down a lot, oh yeah.
Do you have any particular affection for vinyl as a format?
Oh yeah - I have a record player upstairs, I buy vinyl. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to buying vinyl, but I do like to have it. And I appreciate - I know everybody talks about the sound being better, and that’s very true - but just something about the mechanics of taking a record out of the sleeve, putting it down, brushing it off… it’s very romantic to me [laughs]. I use a French press for coffee, same thing.
Was there a specific release from Guidance or Lo-Soul that put them on your radar to send demos to?
Yeah, definitely. Of course now I’m forgetting the name… “My Planet Rocks” is the name of the song. Absolute favorite, hands-down favorite. Now I need to find it [turns to computer]. It’s super hard to mix, kind of has an ambiguous start before they slowly bring in the actual 4/4. [finds it] I fuckin’ love this song - the whole album’s great, but this song is incredible.
Did it ever get to a point where it was hard to go out and dance to tracks because you were evaluating them technically?
You know, actually moreso than that, if I was out at a club and heard a good song, I’d want to go home and write music [laughs]. Evaluate it in that way, not that I’m over-analyzing the quality of the song. I’m over-evaluating because I want to go home and write a song like that, or that has a similar vibe to that. I was kind of known for being the backdoor guy - “hey, where’d Brian go?” Out the door, back in my studio [laughs].
So you were driven by being out there and hearing great music, having great musical experiences, rather than more abstract inspirations?
Absolutely, yeah. You know, obviously, to write this kind of music didn’t pop into my head until I started hearing it. And then Doug started buying equipment, and I started buying equipment, and your skill grows and grows from there.