With a new album out on Sub Pop and a lengthy stretch of 49 shows this spring, Vetiver is garnering attention far beyond its San Francisco home, and transcending the freak-folk label the band has casually endured.
But Andy Cabic, the band's singer, songwriter and core since he began using the Vetiver name almost a decade ago, says his approach is largely the same as it was when he was plucking an acoustic guitar by himself in a cramped apartment.
A Virginia native, Cabic was living in North Carolina when his band, The Raymond Brake, split. He broke for the West Coast, landing in San Francisco.
"I didn't have an electric guitar anymore, just an acoustic that somebody gave me," he says via cell phone, stepping out of a sound check in Asheville, N.C. "I was living in basically a hall closet. It was the height of the dot-com era, and it was hard to find a place. I was learning to fingerpick and writing songs."
Trying to fit a new band together, Cabic befriended some Bay Area musicians, including Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, who both played on Vetiver's 2004 debut.
Cabic has always had a strong pop sensibility at the core of his songwriting—which manifests itself strongest on this year's Tight Knit, a layered and breezy record of melodic folk-rock that recalls Southern California in the 1970s. Tight Knit mixes the acoustic with the electric, the soft and slow folk ballads with bouncy, up-tempo tunes that sound like a more soulful Grateful Dead. Cabic is a relaxed yet focused songwriter, turning out tunes as catchy as they are laid-back.
"There's a general tenor of my songwriting that has stayed somewhat similar," Cabic says. "It's the mix of sweetness and melancholy, but there's been a shift in how the pop elements influence the songwriting. With the electric band arrangements, I've been getting closer to having the resources and ability to do what fits the songs."
Vetiver began talking with Sub Pop while doing the initial tracking for Tight Knit, but didn't sign right away. When the contract was signed in October, the highly regarded label announced the move online, saying, "At last! Vetiver is ours!"
Cabic says he was drawn to Sub Pop in part because of its central role in the West Coast folk-pop revival, the woodsy and bearded side of indie rock that fits with Vetiver, whose members are friends with the Fleet Foxes and Shins.
"That was one reason. It seemed like Sub Pop has a proclivity for working with artists who have an acoustic instrumentation and pop songs that flirted with folk idioms," Cabic says. "But I think that sort of thing cuts both ways. It's not inherently all good that Vetiver is on the label that has all those artists, because people have a tendency to make a knee-jerk reaction to lump us together."
Between the band's self-titled debut and 2008's all-covers Thing of the Past, Vetiver changed labels, going from DiCristina to Gnomonsong (which Cabic and Banhart co-founded), both affiliated with Revolver Distribution.
"I felt like I'd done three records under the umbrella of Revolver, and everyone there is really great, but I felt like at this point in my life, I wanted to try something different," Cabic says.
Despite the disconnect between a covers album and a new batch of original material, there's a continuity between Thing of the Past and Tight Knit. Both albums were recorded in the same studio, with mostly the same set of musicians. It was an approach that allowed Cabic to "test the waters" prior to Tight Knit.
"I didn't go into it with a certain sound I was looking for. I usually take things song by song. The instrumentation and studio resources available helped create the arrangements for each song. It's partly adapting to having a band, and partly writing songs in arrangements that fit," he says. "To me, the record is an amalgamation of approaches we've done on the earlier records. It's the culmination of four albums we've done with the engineering and production of Thom Monahan. This one, really, you can hear all that we've been through in it."
The current touring version of Vetiver includes Cabic on vocals and guitar, Sanders Trippe on guitar, Otto Hauser on drums, and two members new to the band: Daniel Hindman on bass, and Sarah Versprille on keyboard.
Friday's show at Plush will be Vetiver's first in Tucson since a 2004 tour with Banhart and Newsom. That tour was filmed by musician/filmmaker Kevin Barker, whose finished product, The Family Jams, saw its first screenings this month in Florida.