There seem to be two versions of Joe Cardamone that exist in the world. A couple of hours after we speak backstage at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow, we see that there’s one version onstage; howling, spitting, strutting topless like prime Iggy Pop, looking every bit the unapproachable rock god. Two hours before that, I speak to a Joe Cardamone who orders a goat’s cheese salad as a pre-gig meal, drinks ginger beer and is a charming and engaging interviewee. But, if you know the history of Los Angeles’ Icarus Line, you’ll know to expect the unexpected. The fact that Icarus Line are touring newest record Wildlife after a period of record label problems, substance abuse and intra-band tensions, probably comes as a surprise to many who watched the implosion of the band following the critically-acclaimed and outstanding rock and roll abrasion of 2004’s Penance Soiree. But they’re alive and kicking, and what better opportunity to find out what’s been happening in the days since that record, and what the future holds for Cardamone and the band.
We begin by discussing, as we’re in Glasgow, alcohol and what goes best with dark rum. I suggest ginger beer and a slice of lime, whilst Joe posits whisky and ginger beer. “That’s when I used to drink”, remarks Joe. I ask how long it’s been since he last had a drink. “About five years. I’m too old now, too much work to do.” Although Joe is only 32 he feels he’s got to make up for lost time. So I ask about his work, particularly the production and playing on the most recent Icarus Line record, Wildlife. “Yeah, and there’s a lot of other records I’ve been working on too. I’ve been working six days a week for the last three years so that’s why we haven’t toured much.” Knowing that Joe worked with Annie Hardy of Giant Drag on Wildlife and also Hardy’s new record, I ask about being a producer. “Yeah I worked on the Giant Drag record…what else…oh, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis came through town and I helped out on a soundtrack they did.” And how was it working with them? “It was cool – they were great dudes…really cool guys.”
As we’re backstage at King Tut’s I move on to asking how long it’s been since they were last in town. “Shit. Jason? When was the last time we played Glasgow?” Joe asks guitarist Jason Decorse. “Two or three years ago….three years. They didn’t have a TV,” notes Jason as Jon Snow mouths silently in the background. Joe adds “It’s posh now.” I suggest that the well-known venue might never be classed as posh. “Comparatively,” replies Joe with a smile, “not bad.”
As we turn the conversation to Wildlife, I suggest that it has much more of a swagger and a looser feel than career high-point Penance Soiree, and ask if this comes from the departure of guitarist Aaron North, and more control being given over to Cardamone. “I mean, he left the band probably about eight years ago” he comments. “We’ve done two records without him now so I think maybe it’s because I have more control over this one than the last one [Black Lives at the Golden Coast], there’s no major label involved and no one interfering from the outside. I dunno… it was probably more down to me having to do a lot more of it on my own, which resulted in how it sounds. You know, I was kinda learning as I went along as far as production goes, so that attributes a lot of the looseness you hear. I didn’t know how to use Pro Tools when I started and it sounds like an older record because of that. I didn’t know any of the editing tricks so it’s more performance based…for better or worse!”
I noticed this “older” feel myself and point out the mandolin to Joe , or what sounds like a mandolin at the beginning of the record on ‘King Baby’. It sounds steely and off-key, like a deranged Faces track. “Yeah, like the Faces on crack!” laughs Joe. “And you know what, we wanted a mandolin but couldn’t get it so we just played a twelve string high up and hoped that no-one would tell the difference. Cool, so it sounds like a mandolin!” Staying with instrument playing, I ask how much of the record Joe played himself, given the album was tentatively titled Joe Cardamone vs The Icarus Line. “Well, only Jason here played on the record. He plays a lot on it, but I played a lot more on this record than on any other I’ve ever done. I’d say a good portion compared to other records.” I ask if this is something he’s happy doing. “Oh totally. I’ve always written parts and had other people play them. Jason here interprets things in his own way that I can have faith in…so it’s weird. It’s kind of more control and more collaboration, when before I would dictate to people what parts to play and how to play them. For Penance Soiree and Mono I had written everything before we went in to the studio, or demoed it out so that everyone knew… not 100% but a good majority of it. On this, it was more of a live band when we started out, and Jason and Alvin [De Guzman, sometime bassist, but not on this tour] would pick up on stuff. “
“The writing process for me is completely strange. I’ll come up with an idea to a certain point, but I have to get in a room and jam with people. Not so much for feedback, but so I can hear what the vocal is like and I can say ‘ok, cool’.” With so many line-up changes, who is in Icarus Line at the moment? “Lance [Arnao] was the original bass player in Icarus Line so he did all the early tours up to Penance. We were high school best friends. He’s kind of an original member. We lost our drummer on the way over here. The drummer who’s playing tonight [Sammy Fayed from The Bixby Knolls] is here because the drummer [Troy Petrey] didn’t show up at the airport. He’s out to lunch, we haven’t heard from him in days. I dunno what’s going on… I think he’s hanging out under a bridge somewhere.” So how has Sammy managed to cope? “Pretty good. I knew him anyway; I produced his record, for his group. I knew he could probably do it time-wise, but we just had to do it, there was no choice.” It seems like a disaster is still never too far away in the world of Icarus Line.
Turning to the tour itself, I ask how it’s been so far. “The first couple of shows were rough,” admits Joe, “but things are falling into place now, it’s getting better. We’re finding our groove – it’s a hard thing to replace a drummer, especially a drummer. Manchester last night was good though.”
I wanted to know what touring with Icarus Line is like now, compared to the messy, chaotic, substance-addled days of the Penance Soiree era. “It’s not much different, honestly,” reveals Joe. “We’ve had big support tours, small tours on our own… the story with us is always the same. It’s gone up and down, you know? I don’t think the band has ever shifted towards trends much, so it’s easier for us to just get on with our job. “Joe pauses, then continues: “It’s always the same, there’s always a nightmare at some point, you know what I mean? We deal with problems and that’s that.”
I return the conversation to the difference in Icarus Line post-Aaron North, the change in sound from the aggressive, angry early records to the looser garage feel of the last two releases. Joe agrees that there’s an anger to Penance, but reveals “it’s very by-the-numbers, and calculated almost. Yeah, to me it was a very calculated record, we were very young and determined and felt like there was a statement we had to make. There was a lot of pressure to make a good record. We were associated with Buddyhead [the infamous website and record label started by Travis Keller with whom Cardamone has love/hate relationship.] and there was so much shit. We were young and we wanted to have sharpened swords.” And what about now? “These days,” continues Joe, “it’s a little bit different. I feel a lot more comfortable and I’m able to express myself easier. I guess when you have musicians that can play ‘on the fly’, lets it be that kind of situation.” I suspect this is a dig at former guitarist North, and I’m right. “I can throw anything at Joe and he can just… go. Every night on this tour the show is completely different. Even though we’re playing the songs right now and have to learn a couple, they’re all designed to have moments of, like, oblivion! We can do whatever the fuck. Who knows what will happen… sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Watching the gig later, when Cardamone decides to walk amongst the crowd, topless, throwing Iggy shapes and challenging people to confront him, I can confirm that Icarus Line do still live on the edge of that oblivion.
Joe continues with the comparisons, and another dig at North: “During the Penance days some of the band could play, some couldn’t. That was some of the charm of it, probably, but I got frustrated with being bolted down to structures because anything that veered from that threw some of the band for a loop. You get older and you want different things from life, or art, or whatever.” Does the band still play tracks from that period, or from debut record Mono? “Not from that record, no,” comments Joe. Would he rather that record didn’t exist? “No. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it or anything, but it’s just not who I am ten years later, you know what I mean? That’s a long time ago. I’m 32 now – we were babies. You know, you look at a picture of yourself from ten years ago and say ‘right, I’m not going to wear that shirt ever again’. Not in a bad way, that’s just life.”
The conversation moves on to what the future holds for Icarus Line, and I’m pleasantly surprised by what he reveals. “We have another record ready to go. We had written it while we were getting ready for the tour; since we finished Wildlife we’ve been writing constantly so we’ve got about 20 songs. We’ll still be playing shows for six months but a new record is on the horizon.” I ask why there’s been a quick follow-up given the gaps between previous records. “I own a studio now [Valley Recording Co, co-owned with Annie Hardy] so this is the first of a series. Now I own my own fucking place, we can do shit whenever we want. The freedom is in our hands to put out music from now on, which is pretty cool.” Does this mean that Joe can approach bands to produce records, or they know that they can come to him? “I don’t know how I find anything! Honestly, it amazes me that I make it each month; it amazes me that I’m not applying for a job at Wal-Mart. I guess I try to do a great job for everyone and everything that I work on. People hear that, and the next thing you know someone else wants to make a record.”
By asking Joe about how he approaches production duties, he reveals an unexpected credo – an aim to create a scene that allows kids who want to make music to do so, but in a way that’s affordable. “I try to deliver something that people could otherwise not afford. We grew up in the punk rock scene, you know? All of us grew up on Black Flag; we grew up on punk and in a different world that I don’t know even exists anymore. I don’t see it – the internet erased that, I understand that, but there was a certain work ethic.” I suggest that there’s nothing like the Washington, DC, hardcore scene that flourished through first Minor Threat, then through Fugazi and Dischord Records. “Exactly,” agrees Joe, “and camaraderie amongst like-minded individuals. These days everyone seems to be out for themselves. Major labels came along and jumped on a scene, and marginalised that whole ethic.”
Cardamone continues to explain why he set up the studio: “That’s where I came from, so my head’s still kind of stuck there a little bit, so being able to offer high quality recordings and productions to bands that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, is a big deal to me – whilst still being able to make a living. I’ve kind of worked out how to do that. I found a spot in Los Angeles, a hole that needed to be filled, so that people could get records and I could help bands. And that’s always kind of been my role in this group; if you look at the lineage of the Icarus Line, I never take musicians from other bands. I like to find undiscovered talent and push people to their ultimate potential – that’s some sort of skill I’d like to think that I have.”
So the future seems bright not just for Icarus Line, but for any kid who wants to make music in LA but thinks he or she might not be able to afford their dream. Joe Cardamone without a doubt means every word he says off stage and on, and it seems that – missing drummers aside – his musical future is as bright as it’s been at any stage in the last ten years.