When the Lights Go Down in the City: Why Vetiver's Andy Cabic Stays in San Francisco

Vetiver's Andy Cabic

Vetiver's Andy Cabic

"It is hard to live here in San Francisco," confesses longtime resident Andy Cabic, 40, the sole member of the band Vetiver whose shimmering new album, Complete Strangers (Easy Sound), comes out today (March 23).  "SF had a long run of great stuff happening all throughout the 2000s, but right now it just feels like senescence."   

His casual use of an SAT word meaning "the condition or process of deterioration with age" would seem spot-on in summing up San Francisco's devolving music scene. Over the last several years, the City by the Bay has seen an exodus of musicians and venues and an influx of of unwashed tech worker hordes who've descended upon the city with exorbitant security deposits in hand for the city's rampant new constructions as well as passes for the Google, Apple or Genentech's private buses to Silicon Valley.

"The changing climate of rents and the influx of dot-com has totally changed the amount of musicians who live in the city," Cabic says. "It’s absolutely harder for people to live here. When I moved to San Francisco [in 1998] -- and I feel this was the case until the middle of 2000s -- you could move to San Francisco, as you could to many towns, and not really have an idea of what you were gonna do.  I found my way, but I don't think that the city let's you do that anymore."

While urban revitalization displacing artists and low-income residents in cities from Brooklyn to Chicago to Seattle is nothing new, over the last several years the trend has hit San Francisco's music scene especially hard. A number of venues have closed, including, Cafe du Nord,  The Lexington, Cafe Cocomo, Red Devil Lounge and The Sound Factory. Musicians such as Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer, Ty Segal, Jessica Pratt, Woods' Kevin Morby, White Lung's Mish Way and Peach Kelli Pop have all reportedly left the city. In addition there's been a media contraction with the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper ceasing publication, 7x&7 halting its print edition and the loss of beloved college station KUSF.  And just this past December a city supervisor proposed legislation calling for the protection of San Francisco's lauded venues.

"The San Franciso music scene is not in good shape," says Jordan Kurland, Zeitgeist Management founder (The New Pornographers, Best Coast, Death Cab for Cutie, among others) and partner in San Francisco's Noise Pop Festival, which just had its biggest and most successful year yet.  "The irony is that when you have a thriving economy, especially one built on tech, which has a lot of young people working in it with disposable incomes, shows sell well. We definitely benefited from that and we do benefit when the economy is strong here. The flip side of it is that's it's very very difficult, to say the least, to be an artist here. Even those who can afford to stay are choosing to leave because there isn't an artistic community around them."

These issues have, however, led to more vibrant music and art scenes in the East Bay and North Bay  much in the same way Manhattan artists once decamped for more affordable rents in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.

This trend also helps explain why Cabic won't be playing a hometown record release party for Vetiver's Complete Strangers. "I play my hometown as much as I play New York," he says. "From the beginning my bandmates were never from San Francisco. Our first date in May (The desert Daze festival in Mecca, CA), it's outside of L.A., so were just rehearsing and going from there."

Cabic calls his new album, his sixth full-length, a "balance of old and new," which he credits in part to his longtime producer Thom Monahan (Devendra Banhart, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Beachwood Sparks). Says Cabic: "I've done all my records with Thom, so there's that level of continuity. Really, Thom is like the other member of Vetiver. At this point, we have such a shorthand and most of the time we are on the same page. Because we've done all of the records together, we know how we're going to take things a little bit further whether it's a process-oriented thing or a gear thing or and arrangement/instrumentation thing. We're always refining, tweaking and saying, 'OK, let's try this.'"

After an initial run of ten U.S. dates, Vetiver will head to Spain and Portugal in mid-May with longtime compatriot Banhart for a series of more intimate shows. "We're great friends, and we had this idea a few years back to try to strip away some of what we didn't love about touring," Cabic says. "It's really fun because as opposed to doing an entire set of Vetiver songs or an entire set of Devendra songs, we're on stage at the same time together playing one of his songs and then one of mine and every other song you're just supporting your friend."

In the past, Vetiver's association with Banhart led to his being erroneously lumped in with the over-hyped and undefined "freak folk" label from the early-to-mid 2000s. "I think it can just die now," says Cabic. "It doesn't really seem to be relevant and I don't think anyone is using that to any sort of degree. I don't know a single band that has embraced that thing; it's almost like a demarcation of a bad journalistic or critical moniker that didn't seem to hold up. I am friendly with a lot of the people they lumped me in with, but for the threads that musically defined us, there's not a lot, so I don't know."

What he does know is that he doesn't have any plans to leave his adopted hometown anytime soon. "I love this city," says Cabic who lives in a rent-controlled apartment with his girlfriend, whose business, the store Foggy Notion, is located across the street. "If one or two of those things changed, we probably wouldn't have stayed. I wouldn't be able to afford to live here."