Slow and Steady

A local side project becomes too good to sideline

Cave Deaths
Glacier on Fire
Modern Radio

Chances are, unless you are their roommate, their label guy, or a member of one of their other bands, you have no idea who Cave Deaths are—a rare feat for a band in the insular Twin Cities scene. "Maybe it's because we hardly ever play shows," suggests frontman Nate Nelson, still groggy from a nap. "People think we are a side project." He cuts himself off and adds, "I guess we kind of are. We don't even have a van."

Though hardly more than a secret, Cave Deaths are a real band. A great band even, whose debut, Glacier on Fire, was released in January to little fanfare, despite the fact that it's probably one of the best art-rock assemblages to be slung from the Midwest since Y2K. Nervous and cool, it checks in with soft blasts, disjointed jags of skittery rhythm, and occasional Teutonic homage. Nelson's careful, dictation-like vocals sound like Lee Ranaldo's if he were into Percocet instead of poetry. Then there's that horn, playing a solemn, beautifully skewed melody, like "Taps" for the cracked and grievous. It's a pretty hot steez, van or not.

Nelson moved to Minneapolis from Omaha six years ago with the explicit intention of starting a band. That band was United Snakes, which featured Danny Elston-Jones, now Cave Deaths' drummer. "Danny and I had both been playing in this anal math-rock band and didn't want to do that type of thing anymore," says Nelson. "I wanted to be in a band where the audience could understand what we were doing—a band where people could tell the songs apart." In search of an outlet to dispense their love of harmonies and pop-melody, Nelson and Elston-Jones put their plan in motion in 2002 under the name Hand.

"A lot of the bare bones structural ideas for our debut were being put together at this time," says Nelson. "Danny and I did a lot of recording to flesh them out where I played bass as well as guitar and we soon realized we needed a lead instrument."

This is the part where the trumpet comes in. "Mostly, I was just playing in orchestras and jazz bands," says Holly Hasbritt. She'd also played on Hockey Night and Thunder in the Valley albums. Nelson encouraged the 19-year-old Twin Cities newcomer to join Hand. "I grew up listening to Sonic Youth and King Crimson and always wanted to be in bands, I just didn't know there was really the possibility for trumpet in this kind of band," she says. Hasbritt, who also plays keyboards, is the group's secret weapon—a taming, linear force that hews their atonal blitzes and dissonant measures. "It was hard at first. I was used to playing styles that there was instruction for," she says.

Once the lineup congealed, they began writing an album. Very. Slowly. Two years later, they played their first show, and shortly after began putting their debut to tape. They finally christened themselves Cave Deaths late last year. In the meantime, Nelson had also started STNNNG, bassist Andy Larson was busy with the Vets, and Elston-Jones was playing in Banner Pilot and These Riffs; though Nelson insists that the band's glacial pace (har har) is just as much owed to a perfectionist nature. "I'd obsessed over each song and really wanted to see it through. We spent a really long time—about a year—recording the album, making sure not to shortchange the songs." Having finally finished their epic gestation, the band is setting new goals. "Well, we've never played out of Minneapolis," says Nelson. "I'd like to, you know, at some point. Maybe play Omaha or something."

 
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