Q&A With Cardinal

After an 18-year absence, Cardinal has finally returned with Hymns (Fire), its sophomore album. To rabid fans of the bi-coastal duo who’d all but given up hope of ever hearing a sequel to their masterful self-titled 1994 debut, that freshman year must have seemed interminable. When its first longplayer appeared on an indie-rock scene buzzing with grunge and punk, it was such a breath of fresh air, some people became giddy from lack of oxygen. To those without a sense of history, it was as though Richard Davies and Eric Matthews had discovered something that had never been done before. Harpsichords and baroque trumpets on a pop album? Preposterous! We love it. No one knows better than Davies and Matthews, themselves, both men with a sense of perspective, that you only have to dig out your copy of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album to hear “Penny Lane,” awash in baroque trumpet. Or listen to the two LPs by the Left Banke, a mid-’60s combo that hit it big with “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” for a hit of string quartets and harpsichords. Not to say that Matthews and Davies didn’t create something perfectly wonderful, both then and now. MAGNET spoke by phone with the semi-dynamic duo, separately, on the eve of the release of Hymns, their long-awaited sophomore effort. It was well worth the wait. Everyone can now exhale. Davies and Matthews will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Love Like Rain” (download):

MAGNET: Did you have any master plan when you and Richard decided to be Cardinal?
Matthews: When we formed Cardinal our only dream was to get a label that would put out a full-length album. We worked toward that and got some lucky ink from Flydaddy Records and made our album. Cardinal really happened by accident. Richard had a dream of making a Richard Davies record. The Moles was done and he was done with having a band. I was working toward making my own music. We just sort of happened upon each other. I fell in love with his songs, and he fell in love with the idea of having a partner who could help him arrange. I was playing him some of my orchestral works. This was in Boston. I think the truth of it is when we made that record we didn’t know if people would like it or whether it would be any kind of a hit. And all those things happened. It made a splash. It got both our names to a level where they had not been before in terms of recognition. Flydaddy had designs on signing Richard Davies, whatever he was doing. They were big Richard Davies fans. He was set up there to do his solo record. Then shortly after the release of the Cardinal record my phone started ringing. I mean, nobody’s ever heard of Eric Matthews. Opportunities started falling in my lap. I got a lot of attention from my song on the record, which was “Dream Figure.” The only reason that was on the album was we were short one song: “Hey, Eric, can you come up with something?”

No regrets that there weren’t more of your songs on the album?
No, that was fine for me. The whole purpose of the Cardinal album was Richard Davies’ songs, arranged and helped/produced by Eric Matthews. We were a function of Richard Davies songs. It never bugged me any, that’s for sure. I love that album the way it is, Richard Davies. It was the structure of the project, the band if you want to call it that, that’s reflected on him.

Bob Fay played drums on the early demos. What happened to him?
He just wasn’t in the recipe. I had left Boston to come nearer to my homeland in Portland. We had a pretty limited budget, you know, indie rock, to make that album. We had enough money for Richard to come out, and I had a drummer here, Steven Hanford, of some reputation. Mostly known as a punk-rock drummer at the time from Poison Idea. and it was about that time that Bob Fay became a full-time member of Sebadoh. It was just sort of a natural progression by logistics, and our stories were changing. And that was a great way for Bob to go because that turned into a nice run.

I really like the early sessions, too, the stuff you’ve added to the original album.
Yeah, Richard and I spent about a year in my tiny little studio apartment, recording four-track tapes. I always liked that stuff, the earlier versions of songs from the album.

You’ve always been a trumpet player before anything else?
I played trumpet as a kid, until I got braces. Very tough on the embouchure. That’s my serious instrument, for sure. I had and still do have messed-up lower teeth. I had friends who were decent trumpet players. They’d get braces and their sound would go right to hell. My mom was a great proponent of good teeth. She starts talking about the orthodontist, and I start talking about, “Are you crazy?” I was the big cheese on trumpet, locally. I did it a long time and took it very seriously. My mission from childhood was to be in the Boston Symphony, playing for John Williams. I have a natural ear, and jazz improvisation was a natural thing for me to do. I played very seriously up until age 19.

Did you get into Miles Davis as a kid? I saw him live once.
Absolutely. I’m old enough to have seen him, but I never saw him perform. Live music has never been something that interested me. Kind Of Blue is the first record I played where I sat there and started figuring out things.

You must have some kind of training to do the charts for Cardinal.
I’ve never had any training in arranging. I think it’s a function of the way I listened to music as a child. I started well before I ever learned to read music at age 10, playing trumpet. Well before that I’d sit and listen very critically to the Beach Boys, Beatles. I would make it a game of picking an instrument and just focusing on that instrument, that part. Whether it’s a cello from George Martin, I’m just hearing that, and I’m just singing that. You’re breaking down, backward, the arrangement, in a non-intellectual or academic way. And that’s because I have an ear, because I learned to read music so well. As a trumpet player you are forced to do a lot of transposing. They throw a piece of music at you written in C, but you’re playing, let’s say, a D trumpet. You have to be very agile at the way you look at the notes. I’m kind of a natural, but I had certain tools that made it possible for me to sit down with a pencil and figure out parts. And on the Cardinal album, I didn’t know what clef viola was in. But I just sort of did it. And, believe me, the first time I sat with string players that I was paying to be there, I was terrified. When I dropped my arms for that first chord I didn’t know what was going to happen.

The vocal blend of Cardinal is what sets it apart. Did it sound that good the first time you sang with Richard?
That is very much the appeal of the whole Cardinal thing. The first time was the day I met him, perhaps the second day. Bob got us three together and Richard broke out the song “Last Poems,” a fairly simple song chord progression-wise. We sat there and fleshed out a little version of it in a high octave. We were using a four-track recorder. And I said, “Richard let me sing it down here,” and that was a magic moment. That’s when we knew. Our voices sounded so good together. It might have been something like hearing John and Paul’s voices together. Or Curt and Roland’s voices together in Tears For Fears. Countless examples like that of a special combination.

You have that breathy Colin Blunstone vocal thing.
Yeah, I do. I have a few different voices. The low, breathy, quiet thing has been disappearing a little bit lately. I’ve been doing a lot of yelling.

When I think of the baroque style of trumpet you’ve used, it always reminds me of the chart for the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”
Richard’s songs have always lent themselves to a British, mid-’60s arrangement style. In Beatles, Bee Gees records, trumpet is a prominent element. And it was probably the thing I was best at. The new record, too, has a lot of trumpet. And Richard loves it, too.

The new record sounds great, still identifiable as Cardinal but with a few new twists.
It’s still us, but it’s a very different album. I had plenty of room to really work it with the orchestra.

Why so long in between albums? This must be some kind of record.
If we were more on the ball … This project started to begin with “Carbolic Smoke Ball,” if I remember. I got tracks from Richard on that one as long as six years ago. It just took a long time to make a second record. A couple of times we shut the project down because it wasn’t going well. It just took a long time to get 10 songs we were really proud of that represented the Cardinal myth. As we approached the finish line having nine songs, we realized a little more work here and we’re probably going to have a great sounding record.

How did you guys pick the name Cardinal?
We were sitting in Somerville in my apartment. I had recently been listening to the soundtrack of that movie. We were sitting around trying to decide what to call ourselves. Richard came up with the Two Ghosts, and that was a good one. But that record was just sitting there, and the word looked cool. It just jumped out at us. It stuck.

I read somewhere that you wanted to record for new-age label Wyndham Hill. Is that true?
The funny thing was the only Wyndham Hill artist I liked at all was Mark Isham. He’s a trumpet player and I first became acquainted with him from his work on David Sylvian records by Japan. Most of the Wyndham Hill stuff was instrumental, and I wasn’t in love with my voice yet, hadn’t begun to sing through a mic.

Your stuff has always seemed just the ticket for movie soundtracks. Any offers yet?
We had quite a few meetings for one film called Shop Girls, worked with Mark Eitzel, Jason Falkner and Van Dyke Parks doing this music and finished some recordings. But the movie never got made.

Would you still like to be George Martin?
Sure, he’s still sharp as hell and he must be very old. I wanted to be John Williams, too. I was so enamored of Star Wars. I wanted to be a film composer.

Any chance Cardinal might tour this time around?
There are talks under way, but I don’t know what will happen. We did not tour the first Cardinal album. We did play a live show in Boston at the Middle East, but that was before the album came out. We were a trio. Frankly, it was a disappointment. You have the musical ambitions we have, and you go and do a crappy rock trio of these beautiful songs. I frankly don’t understand why anybody would do that. That’s the trick of it. You could do a stripped-down version of the record and I think that would be a drag. The cost of doing it the proper way would be incredible. The numbers have to line up.

What do you think of the term chamber pop or baroque pop?
It’s a lovely term and now it’s stuck. I had never heard the term before. There’s this notion that Richard and I invented something with this project, but that ignores the fact that the Left Banke and the Beatles had done it all 45 years ago. And Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. Listen, it stood out. We were doing something different from anybody at the time. Everybody was into Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and here we came with harpsichords. Justin Bieber fans, they need more harpsichord in their lives.


MAGNET: Why was there never a second Cardinal album?
Davies: I think the reason it didn’t happen is we were never a live band. We were like, “OK, I’m gonna write some songs.” I already had ’em, songs. I’d had a bunch of the songs from when I was in London. And it was really focused on working in a room together to turn the songs into a record. We were very much insulated from being in rehearsal rooms with our buddies and the usual story of how bands operate. And I think that was a big reason why it took 18 years to do another one. The other reason why so long is that some of those songs are years old by now. They took a long time going back and forth between myself and Eric before they arrived at a point where we were satisfied that it sounded right. We’re both very stubborn, and we’re both very different people.

How are you very different?
Eric wanted to record every note perfectly, and you dove right in to get the feel of things: You don’t usually find people so different in the same band together. But what we have in common is our stubbornness and bloody-mindedness. We’d be quite critical of each other. I remember saying to Eric on the “Kal” song, “That’s not good enough” a number of times and sent him back to the drawing board. And vice versa. I’d tell him, “You can have this song and bugger off,” and he’d say, “I’m not having that. Give me another one.”

When did you first realize the two of you had a remarkable blend of voices?
I know it’s a big cliche. But I’ve been reading a scholarly book on John Lennon, and it talks about the moment when John and Paul started to sing together. They paid one pound each to make a shellac recording in some lounge room. And they were already getting the blend of their voices. And when I read that passage, just this morning, I thought that was just an accident of history. Nobody could have controlled that. And I think it was a similar dynamic with me and Eric. When we sing together it just works.

Do you remember the first time you and Eric sang together?
It was on “Last Poems” and it was an unusual thing for me because I took the high falsetto part. Eric, Bob Fay and me were in a basement in Somerville and immediately realized this isn’t too bad for people who barely know each other. I’d been tramping around London for months with songs like that under my arm, one of them was “If You Believe In Christmas Trees.” What happened was we had a couple of loose, jam-session rehearsal with Eric and Bob. Bob had told me, “I know this guy, and I’ve got a feeling you two would get on well together.” And he was absolutely right. From my end I felt relief. That was on “Christmas Trees” and then it goaded me on to write “Last Poems,” because I thought if we could do that on “Christmas Trees” we could really do well on one where we really sing the whole thing together. It was definitely a special feeling.

Are you two friends when you’re not recording?
To tell you the truth we’re on other sides of the country.

How did you select the name?
Bob Fay has a huge LP collection. He pulled the album out and said, “What do you think of this for a name? That’ll work.” And it seemed, oh yeah, that really seems to fit. When I say we’re both bloody-minded I still get on with people. I’m not reclusive. I’m a trial attorney for god’s sake. I spend half my life in front of a jury of strangers, explaining stories to them. And Eric is more kind of a classically reclusive personality type. We’re both intent and serious. I need to clear my head out at the end of each busy day and sit down quietly late at night to write my music. and that is our common ground. I know that Eric’s favorite thing is to be there in his studio at home with his own thoughts. It’s stuff he understands, It makes sense to him, and he can shape it the way he wants to. We take this very seriously. We’re critical of ourselves to make damn sure if we bother to do this that it’ll be as close to perfectly right as we could get it.

When I spoke to Eric earlier, he said it was pretty stop-and-start to the finish with the new album.
When we did the first record it was to our advantage that it was not heavy grunge-sounding. It was the product of who we were and we’re still those same two people. We’re older but we’ve got that same attitude. There are certain things we like about pop music that have a confluence: melody and sticking with it until it’s good. And the thing that distinguished Cardinal is not the thing that’s easy to hang onto a hook, which is to say all pop. I understand that everyone lives with labels, but the true thing that distinguishes that record and that will distinguish this one is a dedication to a cause. And that cause is old-fashioned good songs, old-fashioned attention to detail. It’s the kind of thing that the good British and American bands of the ’60s were obsessed with.

How did you feel when you discovered Eric’s strengths as an arranger?
I felt this great sense of relief that he was someone with the balls to approach my masterful songs and not insult them. [Laughs]

Any chance Cardinal will tour this time around?
I think Eric’s always unsure about that. I don’t think he’s ever played a live show. Right, we played a show for our girlfriends at the Middle East in Boston. Literally to our girlfriends. There was no one else there. I spent the whole night trying to coax him into singing. And he was looking at the mic, then looking at me and then shying away from it. I think he feels a lack of control in the spontaneous element of playing live, putting yourself out there. You can eat a flyberry pie and people will love you, or they’ll say you’re a load of bullshit. I think the key to doing it would be making things easy for Eric. I love being in front of an audience. To me it’s like a jury. Instead of a 20 piece orchestra, the key for Eric would be to have a glass of red wine, get your trumpet out and play that for a half an hour and then bugger off home. But Mick Jagger said it right: When you make a record you’ve got to get it right, but when you play live, people don’t give a shit about that. They just want to see what you’re doing.

—Jud Cost

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