Interview by Mathieu Santos
Images and Video by Luke Savage
“There’s so much pretentious, serious stuff out there.
At least with Cayucas, at the end of the day,
—Cayucasyou get to go to a show and have fun.” — Cayucas
Originally a solo project by Zach Yudin under the name Oregon Bike Trails, Cayucas formed in 2012 when he was joined by his brother Ben Yudin, and the duo signed to Secretly Canadian. The Los Angeles-based band released their debut album Bigfoot in 2013, and this month marks their sophomore album, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon.
Mat Santos is the bassist of Ra Ra Riot, an orchestral pop four-piece formed at Syracuse University in 2006. The band has released three albums since: The Rhumb Line, The Orchard, and Beta Love. In 2011, he released his solo album, Massachusetts 2010, inspired by recording with Ra Ra Riot on a peach farm. Santos is also classically trained painter, and currently based in Brooklyn.
If Cayucas conjures a quixotic version of California—a golden haze of coastline, hills and palm trees—the band has accomplished what they set out to produce. Even the moniker is fitting, chosen after the tiny Central Coast beach town Cayucos, which appears and disappears along a curve of Highway 1. On their newest release, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon, bandmates and twin brothers Ben and Zach Yudin imagine other, farther nostalgic places with due reference to their West Coast roots. Dancing at the Blue Lagoon dives once more into a halcyon childhood in Davis and beyond to a string of coastal scenes and a make-believe tiki bar, the titular “Blue Lagoon.” Produced by Ryan Hadlock, the album takes a more melody-focused approach than their debut, Bigfoot, layering strings and piano under narrative-driven lyrics.
Birthed as Zach Yudin’s solo project under the name Oregon Bike Trails, the band expanded in 2012 to include Ben. The two signed to Secretly Canadian as Cayucas and toured as the opener for Ra Ra Riot, releasing Bigfoot shortly after with the help of producer Richard Swift. Now, in light of their second album, the Yudin brothers sit down with Ra Ra Riot’s bassist Mathieu Santos to reflect on their route from sampling obscure records to surprise success, and what comes next.
Mathieu Santos: Let’s go back all the way back to the beginning—Davis, California. You grew up in Davis and were living there up until high school?
Zach Yudin: Yes.
MS: It seems that setting is really important in your music. In your lyrics, you set up scenes and dialogue between characters with a lot of references to actual places. When did you start making music?
ZY: When this project started a few years ago, the original demos lent themselves to a kind of nostalgia. We had been writing songs for four or five years before Cayucas, but it was never nostalgic. So that’s how it started.
Ben Yudin: There was a combination of a couple of bands – Washed Out, Fleet Foxes and the Beach Boys – that kind of directed the project.
MS: What material were you writing about at first?
ZY: The first song written was “Deep Sea,” kind of a sample-based song. I was looking for samples that were very beachy. That song wasn’t necessarily nostalgic, but the next one was, and after that we were kind of in that head-space.
MS: What does nostalgia mean to you? What are you nostalgic for?
A 1983 film by Francis Ford Coppola, adapted by the S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. The Outsiders helped spark the 1980s Brat Pack trend, and starred up-and-coming actors C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, and Patrick Swayze, among others.
ZY: I was reading this thing about Coppola. When he turned 45 or something, he was like, “I have to direct Outsiders.” I don’t know if I’m right about that.
BY: For sure that’s wrong. (laughs)
ZY: He had to do his high school movie. But it had to happen when he was, like, 45. I think that’s kind of where I am – I have this high school stuff ten years later.
BY: We talk about high school every day. It’s weird.
ZY: Because those moments from childhood, high school and now college are so poignant and nostalgic. And it’s not prom – it’s not the big, epic event. It’s the little things that happened.
MS: So it’s those little moments – you’re walking on the beach one night with a friend, or driving somewhere, or riding a bike.
ZY: And that’s kind of the stuff I find interesting to write about.
“When Cayucas started, the demos
lent themselves to a kind of nostalgia.
We had been writing for four or five years
before, but it was never nostalgic.”
— Zach Yudin
MS: It’s funny because we’re pretty young. We’re 30. I don’t know if that’s a new thing or what, but it’s always interesting to me when people our age are getting nostalgic. You mention the Beach Boys, and that was a big thing too. Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds when he was —
ZY: Which is part of the reason why it’s so amazing – that he could write such a good album at that age.
BY: It’d be weird to write nostalgic songs when you’re, like, 21. It’s not that interesting until you’re older. That’s when you have perspective on it.
MS: I don’t know if you still write by using samples and loops, but I know you did early on with Oregon Bike Trails and all of the demos which became Bigfoot. Is there a specific reason you started working that way?
ZY: In my early to mid-twenties I was doing electronic music, Daft Punk style. I was obsessed with French DJs. That’s how I got into sampling, in a hip-hop sense, just because it was the easiest way to write a good song. You could find a cool sample and have a song without recording guitars and everything.
BY: The verse is already done. You don’t have to worry.
ZY: I had written some electronic and dance stuff, but once I started doing the same with ‘60s rock I was like, “Oh, if I put a poppy vocal on top, this could be a nice little beachy song.”
MS: So what was the library that you were working from?
ZY: It was mostly CDs. I would go to Amoeba and buy whatever had cool cover art. The cover of one album had a guy on a sailboat, and he had on a white blazer with no shirt under it. He had like one album in ‘71 and got dropped, but I remember that album in particular. It had a song on it called “Centipede,” and it was the coolest Jimmy Buffett song you’ve never heard. Just those little things that people wouldn’t know.
MS: Putting little pieces together and building up a mood.
ZY: Yeah, four bars of something looped, and that was pretty much it. Maybe a little stuff on top, and then spending the most time writing a good vocal, a melody. But the verses and the choruses would have to change, obviously, because the loop was going through the whole song.
BY: I remember when you saw us play “High School Lover.” You were like, “He just plays one chord the whole time.” If you were a guitarist, you would never write that.
ZY: It’s all about hearing something that catches your ear, which is hard because you had to listen to three-and-a-half minutes of a terrible song to get to that.
The stage name of Ernest Greene, Washed Out was signed to Sub Pop after the success of two 2009 EPs High Times and Life of Leisure. Washed Out has since released Within and Without (2011) and Paracosm (2013), and is often associated with the chillwave movement, characterized by sampling, looping, synth, filtered vocals and simple melodies.
MS: I like the idea of making music in that way – sort of curating it or picking things that exist. Lyrically, you’re picking references or specific ideas and making a whole world out of it.
BY: I would recommend it to anybody who doesn’t want to get super into producing or recording but just wants to write good songs. We didn’t want to buy microphones and mic pianos and record drums. We wanted to do something simpler. You pay for it later when you have to play live (laughs), which has always been our Achilles heel.
MS: And when you have to figure out how to recreate all the samples in the studio.
BY: I remember when Washed Out came out, because all his stuff is sample-based too. It took him a while to get going live. You ask yourself, “How am I going to play these songs live?”
MS: So you would just rip the CD and then chop it up? A lot of those demos have that endearing, lo-fi vibe everyone likes to talk about, but was that a by-product of the process or was it more of a stylistic choice?
ZY: Yeah, that was because of the situation. But I would spend a lot of time on the vocals. I would sing each song five times through, with a ton of reverb, just so much reverb, and sometimes the mic would be here and I would turn around, and I’d sing a song like this [cups hands around mouth].
BY: I walked in sometimes, and he’d be on the other side of the room. I’d be like, “Dude, what are you doing? What technique is this?”
ZY: It was to make it more distant, or worse or more old – like the vocal was there naturally.
MS: Growing up, were you guys always super close? The kind of twins who are always together?
BY: Is this where the interview’s going? Are you going to make me cry, dude? We were close, but not as close as a lot of twins. We didn’t have to do everything together. We were on the golf team and two of our good friends were twins too, and they did everything together. They had the same golf bag, same clubs, same clothes, same haircut, the same set of friends. We had different friends.
ZY: We went out of our way to have separate lives to some degree.
A musician and singer-songwriter, who played with the rock band Heatmiser from 1991 until the beginning of his solo career in 1994. Best known for his distinctive soft, layered vocals, he suffered from substance abuse and depression, which appear often in his lyrics. Smith released five albums before his death at 34 in 2003.
MS: What was it like making music together, then? Were you guys collaborating early on?
BY: Yeah. Zach’s been the singer ninety percent of the time. One or two times I was the singer. Those are my little Elliott Smith moments. I’ve always been playing guitar, mostly acoustic-based stuff, and we’d do a lot of random little band ideas.
“We’re not collaborative at all.
We hate writing while sitting in a room together.
We just get mad at each other.”
— Ben Yudin
MS: Was it fun for you guys to come up with these little projects here and there? Would you have natural chemistry, or was it hard to find your own voices?
ZY: There’s no sitting in a room and hashing things out. I’ll write a song, and he’ll add guitar to it. Or he’ll write a song on guitar, and then give it to me.
BY: We’re not collaborative at all. We hate writing while sitting in a room together. We just get mad at each other.
MS: When you send stuff to each other do you say, “Oh yeah, this is great. Good job”?
ZY: Ben wrote this song, “Jenny In A White Shirt” or something. It was a minute-and-a-half demo guitar song, and I was like, “Okay, this is a good guitar riff. Get rid of the vocal or the lyrics.” I took that guitar riff, made the verses and added my own chorus. That song turned out to be “Moony Eyed Walrus,” our new single. So it started out with Ben having this one-minute, two-minute idea on guitar, and I just added a chorus.
A producer and musician, Ryan Hadlock heads the family-owned Bear Creek Studio in Seattle. Hadlock produced the The Lumineers’ 2012 eponymous platinum-selling album, and has worked with The Strokes, Cayucas and Foo Fighters.
BY: And then you added bass, and Ryan Hadlock did his magic. Everyone did their magic.
MS: That night he stayed late, sitting cross-legged in his socks, playing with the tape echo.
ZY: And then Becca [Zeller of Ra Ra Riot] played violin. So you have this amazing song, and it started from this weird little demo.
BY: It slowly got better and better.
MS: Did you guys always want to make music together, or was it easy because you were always just in the other room?
BY: It was more just easy. It wasn’t as if we sat down and had this blueprint, like, “We’re gonna be the next Oasis.”
ZY: We weren’t trying to be The Proclaimers or anything. What were we gonna do? Find another bass player? There’s one right here.
Richard Swift is a musician and producer, and also founder, owner, and recording engineer of Oregon-based recording studio National Freedom. As such, he has produced for and played with the indie rock band the Shins, and is the touring bassist and background singer with The Black Keys.
MS: So up until the first record, it was all just the two of you guys. How was it working with [Richard] Swift on the first record? Was it hard for you guys to release some control over the music for the first time?
ZY: A little bit, yeah. Sometimes he would play something, and I would think, “That’s not…” I have more of a pop ear, whereas Richard Swift does his own thing. So sometimes I would feel like, “Wait, that’s not pop enough.” That was the only thing. For the most part, I was just like, “It is what it is.” I was just happy to have him.
BY: Because we really liked the demos, we were a little concerned that now everything was going to be live instruments, but he did a great job.
ZY: I mean, I still think that the demos have the most charm, but you can’t…
McCartney and McCartney II
Released a decade apart, the first in 1970 and second in ‘80, McCartney and McCartney II are both self-recorded solo albums by Paul McCartney that each coincided with the breakup of a band – the Beatles, then Wings. Both have a unfinished, experimental quality that lend themselves to a new direction in music.
MS: I’m the same way. I always love demos more. You always have to repeat this mantra of, “Nothing’s precious, you’ve got to let go and move forward.” But so many of my favorite albums, so much of my favorite music has that kind of quality to it. When you’re not really thinking of what you’re doing, you’re kind of figuring it out, making mistakes, singing off-key – there are always so many more cool moments and it’s hard to have lost those things. So many good albums are like that. We keep talking about Brian Wilson, but a lot of his late ‘60s, early ‘70s music was stuff he was messing around with at home. Those McCartney records – McCartney and McCartney II – they’re very demo-y. That Springsteen record, Nebraska, is just demos.
ZY: But what’s interesting is that McCartney II could never do what Let It Be could do. For the die-hards, for the real fans, McCartney II could be a favorite.
MS: It is cool when there’s that whole range, too. It’s Paul McCartney – he’s a god – but he’s letting his guard down, and you can see him being silly in private. That’s why demos are always super endearing. I think Swift was probably the right guy to make that jump and not lose it. The record sounds great.
ZY: I’m more attracted to the rough-around-the-edges White Album or McCartney II rather than a pristine, perfect album. I guess you can appreciate both. But I think that if we continued doing the Oregon Bike Trails demo songs, there was no growth there.
MS: Speaking of growth and this new record, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon, sophomore records are very tough. Sophomore slump – it’s a real thing, and especially for a band like you guys. You guys had success with Bigfoot, and did a lot of touring with a lot of bands. It’s tough to deal with the expectations of the next record, and to find a way to adapt the sound and grow without leaving everything behind that got you there in the first place. Bigfoot was like, “Welcome to Cayucas World.” This record seems more like separate avenues or different neighborhoods within the world. It’s darker and more mature. Did you approach this album with anything more specific in mind, or was it a natural progression?
BY: We started writing demos, and Zach came up with song ideas like “Moony Eyed Walrus” and “Champion,” and they all started to come together. We were thinking, too, of taking a maybe more pop-sounding direction on a song like “Ditches.” We were also interested in who would produce it and stepping that up a little bit. There are a lot more strings on the album, and we were spending more time on the songwriting, just trying to flesh the songs out as much as possible and make them as good as possible.
ZY: Because Oregon Bike Trails and Cayucas were kind of a fluke – just a handful of songs that turned into something by accident – the first album represented that. But with this one, we kind of stepped back as songwriters, and wrote all the songs on guitar and piano. It’s a continuation of Cayucas.
Tornados & Joe Meek
The Tornados were a 1960s British instrumental band who acted as a backing group for Joe Meek’s productions as well as for singer Billy Fury. Joe Meek composed and produced the Tornados’ number one hit “Telstar” (1962) as well as other commercially successful music before his death by suicide in 1967.
MS: I remember when you guys sent me the inspiration playlist for the second album, there was a lot of John Williams on it, which I thought was really cool. What else was on that mix? Was it the Tornados?
ZY: Tornados stuff, probably. We were really big into the producer Joe Meek at that time. Tornados and Joe Meek was more of a Oregon Bike Trails/Cayucas kind of thing, like our first record Bigfoot. This one we were trying just to write real pop songs.
MS: So how did you end up choosing to work with Ryan Hadlock on the second album?
ZY: We really liked that idea when Josh [our manager] threw it out because we like his albums.
MS: And what was it like working with him? I know you got him super into Joe Meek.
BY: He saw himself as Joe Meek because he’s scared of record labels…
ZY: He could be Joe Meek if he’s not careful.
“Bigfoot was ‘Welcome to Cayucas World.’
This record seems like different
neighborhoods within the world.
It’s darker and more mature.”
— Mathieu Santos
MS: I remember he was wearing sunglasses a lot when I was there… So this was your first time working with a more pop guy?
ZY: Yeah. Growing up, that was sort of the album we always imagined making, going into a studio like this. That’s just how people make albums. It was cool to get into a real studio with musicians and producers.
MS: Now that you’ve finished it, do you feel like it was a good choice?
ZY: Yes, I think it opened up a lot.
MS: And lyrically, I’m not as familiar with Blue Lagoon – has there been a lyrical shift at all?
ZY: Yeah, the first one was just whimsical, happy songs – well, I think there’s more depth to “High School Lover” than most people will ever realize. But looking at some of the old lyrics, it’s like looking at a high school photo and just being like, “What was I thinking?” Now, I spent more time fleshing it out, and tried to write more personal songs with more depth. Personal songs – songs that talk about your feelings, tears coming down your face or something – I never thought I could write like that. Now I feel like I could.
MS: In Bigfoot, all these scenes and all these stories, how personal are they? Are they actually biographical, or are you fictionalizing things, romanticizing some fantasy?
ZY: It’s based on truth. Kind of fantasy, too. 50/50.
MS: That’s another cool thing about the lyrics and the vibe of your band, too. The scenes are all super realistic. It’s all very relatable, but the title track is “Bigfoot” – there’s an interesting play between fantasy and reality that puts a spin on it. Same with this new record – the songs are personal and relatable, but you’re dancing at the Blue Lagoon. That’s not a real place.
ZY: There was a water park we went to called the Blue Lagoon, so I think that’s in the head somewhere. And then I watched this movie called Dancing at the Blue Iguana, which is a movie based on six strippers with Demi Moore. It’s a really bad movie, but it’s kind of funny. So once I had this title, it created a fictional place – The Blue Lagoon is this dingy bar. I started referencing the Tiki-Ti in LA, where there’s a bull that runs across the bar, and when it runs, everybody yells, “Toro!” and you drink. It’s all based on reality, but it’s not related at all. You know how this is becoming a trend, tiki bars? They’re coming back? And there are like a thousand drinks? Each drink is impossible to make unless you’re a master.
BY: And they don’t share them, either. We went to one of – they say – the best ones in the US. It’s in Chicago, called Three Dots and a Dash. The drinks take like ten minutes to make.
ZY: You’ve never drank an actual Mai Tai. You’ve only had fake Mai Tais. These tiki bars are dead set on making the actual drinks. They take it very seriously. But it’s great because lyrics in these songs, like Chief Lapu Lapu, Barbados Kula, Shark’s Tooth – all these amazing drinks just add to the imagery.
MS: When you started as Oregon Bike Trails, did you guys ever want to be touring? Or was it something you were doing for fun in the bedroom, and it’s a nice surprise that it’s turned into something?
BY: A really nice surprise, yeah. I don’t think we planned on touring at all.
ZY: We didn’t know what a tour meant. But we watched Cribs on TV and thought, “I want that.”
BY: Some bands, too, they’re like, “I just want to be on the road. As long as I can pay for gas and food, I’m happy.” I was just like, “Huh?” We both prefer making music and playing corporate gigs and stuff. (laughs) We realized, though, that you can’t do music without touring. And now we love it. It’s almost addictive.
A documentary film by Ondi Timoner, which uses seven years of footage to contrast the careers, frontmen and love-hate relationships The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The film won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004.
MS: When I was going to college, I made a list of life goals: I’m going to start a band, we’re gonna make an album, and we’re gonna go on tour. But I had no idea what any of that meant, or how you did any of that, or what any of it entailed. I was obsessed with that documentary Dig! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. I watched that so many times and was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do!”
ZY: For you, it kind of happened a little more naturally. For us, it took a little bit longer.
BY: You did the right thing. You formed a band in college. You made an album. You went on tour. We just sat around. Now that you mention it, [Zach] had a list too. It was so silly. “Play Conan O’Brien.” It was like three things, and one of them was play Conan. (laughs)
ZY: If we didn’t have those hopes and dreams, I don’t think we would be here. We’d be working regular jobs and would have given up in our mid-twenties.
“We’re the Jerry
Seinfeld of bands.”
— Ben Yudin
MS: It’s funny, we did the same exact thing when we first started and were practicing in Josh’s basement at Syracuse. We made a list of goals. They could be stupid. “Get signed to a label. Tour in Japan. Tour in Europe.” I think “Play Conan” was on our list too. Lo and behold, we found the list years later – I think Josh had kept it. We looked over it and had done everything on it.
ZY: I think, too, when you’re young playing Conan or playing a festival seems like such a pipe dream.
MS: Do you want to just keep making records? Are you happy that it’s already gone further than you imagined, or do you want to be headlining festivals and things like that?
BY: We’re not like, “We gotta play the Greek.” That’s cool and stuff, but we just want to keep making records. That’s what I enjoy.
ZY: Our hope is just to have a full discography – four or five albums – just a full picture. I can’t imagine doing more. You shouldn’t do more than that.
MS: What is the worst thing about Cayucas?
ZY: We seem lazy compared to other bands. We hate networking.
BY: We’re the Jerry Seinfeld of bands.
ZY: We don’t like doing acoustic sessions and stuff like that. We don’t have that drive we see in every other band. (laughs) That’s probably our biggest problem. We’re just not very responsive.
BY: When people come from the East Coast and hang out in LA, they’re always really shocked, like, “You guys are so lazy. What is everybody doing?”
ZY: We like a European café culture. That’s our vibe.
MS: What’s the best thing about Cayucas?
BY: It’s happy music.
ZY: There’s so much pretentious, serious stuff out there. At least with Cayucas, at the end of the day, you get to go to a show and have fun. Bands like Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews – jam bands – you just go for the vibe. I was telling this girl the other day, “Yeah, I was just listening to some Dave Matthews,” and she looked at me and said, “Are you serious?” I don’t know when he became this…
BY: Same with Jack Johnson. Somewhere they became complete jokes.
ZY: Now it’s just a huge joke. She was like, “What, do you like the intro of ‘Ants Marching’ or something?” I was like, “Yeah, I guess that is kind of ridiculous.”
MS: Say what you will about Dave and that stuff, but at least it’s pure in a sense.
ZY: It came from a very real place. And they’re still going. That awesome, cool band from 1998 or 2003, who got a 9.8 on Pitchfork, they’re selling car insurance in Reseda. They’re not around anymore. Any band that has longevity I find interesting.