Stranger Than Fiction: Cavanaugh

Just try to figure out what’s real and what’s just Cavanaugh in Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti’s new project

Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti are in the middle of a heated argument. 

It's about coffee. Keurig single-use coffee brewers, specifically. Serengeti—real name David Cohn—is pro-K-cup, though at the moment he's having some trouble operating a Keurig machine. "On the real...they have different types of K-cups, and I just tried to make one of the wrong K-cups," the Chicago-raised rapper says. "I was told you could just transfer the coffee out of that pod into a K-cup two pod, and that doesn't work because all the grounds are just in the coffee. So, it's a joke." 

Open Mike Eagle—that's his given name, minus the "open"—isn't a fan of the "Keurig gimmick. "I don't like that gimmick—I don't like that one at all," he explains. "I need a full pot," he continues. He's from Chicago, too, but these days he lives in Los Angeles. "I can't get satisfaction out of one cup of coffee at a time," Eagle says. "It seems very weird and wasteful to me." 

"It's lovely," Serengeti, counters. 

"I like making stuff one time," Eagle says. "I don't like making stuff over and over again." 

Okay. It's not really an argument. It's not even a debate. It's two guys, both of whom make idiosyncratic, layered, and darkly funny hip-hop, just talking: To hear each other, to hear themselves. It's what they do on Time and Materials, their new collaborative album under the project name Cavanaugh. It's a short but potent burst of a record, nine songs of rapid-fire rhymes over throbbing industrial beats (Eagle produced all of the music on the album—he credits his anxiety as an influence on the album's murky soundscapes). It's a conceptual piece, about a "new urban development on the far west side of Detroit, Florida." It's made up of luxury condos and low-income housing. There are two different entrances: one for the rich, one for the poor. Dave and Mike play two characters, custodians named "Dave" and "Mike," who riff on their home lives, puff up their chests, and drop reams of pop culture references—J. Lo in Anaconda, video games, Josephine Baker, seaQuest DSV, Atari games, X-Force member Shatterstar. They're joined by guests like Busdriver, P.O.S. and Sam Herring of Future Islands, appearing under his rap guise, Hemlock Ernst, for these funny, reflexive songs. 

The narrative framework is nothing new for the rappers. In addition to his prolific solo discography and work with Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux in the band Sisyphus, Serengeti has recorded as Kenny Dennis, his middle-aged blue-collar alter ego. Eagle's got a diverse resume too. In addition to excellent albums like 2014's Dark Comedy, he's authored academic studies, appeared on Why? With Hannibal Buress and hosts the ace interview podcast Secret Skin. But the extended story isn't the focus here. It exists to set up a world for Mike and Dave to explore, but they remain our primary characters. And they're not all that unlike their real-life counterparts. 

"I like to look at it like professional wrestling; the best gimmick is an exaggerated version of yourself," Eagle says. "So when it comes to this project, the Mike in Cavanaugh is pretty much just me, just augmented in tiny ways, imperceptible to the eye."

"The whole Cavanaugh thing is just these two guys at work blowing off steam," Serengeti says. The lyrics, traded back and forth over oozing beats, are a reflection of the character's "day to day, nine-to-five grind." 

"I think they just kind of have a human experience," Eagle says of the characters position between the rich and the poor. "It's not so much that they're dealing with the extremes [of these two classes] every day, just how it impacts them to be around these varying populations of people and have access to all of it and move freely among all of it, kind of live under it and in between in and shit." 

As the two blow off steam, their conversations veer from self-loathing, like on the moody, synth wave of "Pink" to surreal and worried, like on the Brian Eno-recalling album highlight "Screen Play." Their voices stretch and bend over Eagle's ambient production; "Tar" possesses a kind of laconic bounce, but mostly the album hangs together hazily by design. 

"That was definitely the goal, to have the record come on and it just has this thing to it," Serengeti explains. "They all just bleed together. It just has a vibe to it when you put it on, like a Sade record.  There are no fluctuations, like 'This is the party song,' or 'This is the J-Pop song." 

"[Or] 'This is a twerk song,'" Mike jokes. "But we should make a twerk song." 

The record holds together in a singular sonic way, but the duo's lyrical focus folds in intense personal reflections, family traumas, snotty asides, inside jokes and bruised egos. 

It's difficult to tell what's coming from Mike and Dave (the characters), what's coming from the tenant conversations they overhear at the Cavanaugh complex—"They see all the bickering between all the people in the building. They field all the complaints," Serengeti says—and most of all, what's coming from Mike and Dave in real life. "Keep the us with the us'es and the you's with the you's," they chant on the album closer "Lemons." Is that the people of Cavanaugh speaking about their class divide? Is it the characters themselves, speaking to each other but not connecting? Or is it about the distance between the rappers and the listeners? 

"You know, we like making art, man," Eagle says. "It's provocative and people make interpretations, and I don't want to tell anybody their interpretation is right or wrong." 

"I don't want to give anybody the satisfaction or the dissatisfaction," Eagle laughs. "Great works sometimes are open-ended. Not even saying that what we made is great work, but that's a thing I value." 

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