At the same time everyone was pronouncing NYC dead, two local guys, separated by thousands of miles, were collaborating on a pair of singles that look for the square root of Captain Beefheart and the Ramones. With this follow-up to their buzzed-about 2020 debut, One Act Sonix, which got heavy airplay on WFMU, Vapor Vespers delivers the goods, right from your favorite late-night slice joint. Long-time Brooklyn Beat and now Hudson Valley scenester Sal Cataldi works the Robert Fripp guitars and Krautrock electronics; Bronx-born Mark Muro pines and opines on spoken word. I caught up with the pair last week via email, just as they were preparing to launch the new singles, complete with oddball videos comprised of found footage and various Ryan Trecartin-approved pixilations.
I don’t think I ever got the story about how you started working together. Was there a long genesis? The songs and the videos seemed to come out of nowhere.
Mark Muro: Sal and I met when we were kids and started doing music together when we were 13 or 14. Our music making went on, more or less, until I moved away from the city at age 23. Since back then, Sal it turned out, showed a lot of talent and went on to do great things (me not so much, although I still noodle on some woodwinds I have from time to time.) We have collaborated intermittently whenever I come back to NY to visit. We started recording the Vapor Vesper tracks around 2011, I think. That’s where the album come from.
Sal Cataldi: I met Mark when I was around 13 and when I got my first serious guitar, a $13 acoustic with two-inch-high action. I had no idea how to tune it, but managed to somehow get some riffs written and we immediately started writing and recording songs on a little reel-to-reel, actually a 28-song rock opera no less—this was the time of “Tommy,” remember. Mark did most of the words and played percussion on plastic ice cream containers. We even created album artwork, gatefolds of course, and put all the songs in notebooks, which I still have. Real savage, Art Brut stuff. We would meet every day to write and record, especially in the summers. I quickly moved up the Godzilla of Japanese guitars, a five pick-up Teisco del Rey, then got more serious playing in lots of bands in high school, college and beyond, studying jazz harmony, guitar and piano at the Brooklyn Conservatory, and I never stopped. In the late ‘70s, Mark and my thing evolved into a 7-man collective called The Ammonia Trolls, inspired by a steady diet of Zappa, Beefheart, Sun Ra, The Art Ensemble of Chicago etc. After Mark left NYC, I continued to move through, gig and make records with a host of bands, like Brooklyn Beat band Frank’s Museum, a jazz group Collector, the Hari Karaoke Trio of Doom, up to my main project of the last 12 years or so, the solo instrumental and acoustic vocal experiment, Spaghetti Eastern Music, and a couple of off-shoots, including the ambient guitar duo Guitars A Go Go.
Vapor Vespers evolved when Mark started coming to New York to visit his ailing brother about ten years back. He had developed into an actor/playwright, performance artist/comedian while living in Anchorage. I had tons of diverse instrumentals in the can, and whenever he came down I had him come over to my houseboat and lay down some word stuff. After three or four sessions/visits, we had enough for an album. His stories and monologues (I don’t really think of it as poetry) put to some existing tracks and ones that I created over a piece he had laid down. That’s how we came up with the first album and these two new pieces, which we cut at my house up in Woodstock.
The new singles dig into your NYC roots. There is a familiarity to it of your favorite bar, or group of friends you see when you are in a particular mood. “You Changed” comes off like a diss track, but it embraces a New York attitude that never goes away, no matter how many luxury towers they put up.
Cataldi: “You Changed” is a good example of what Mark does. It’s really more of monologue rant from a stage piece, than a poem, and it is about the humor and the maniac passion with which he performs this one, and everything he does really. Growing up, he was always the funniest guy in the room, the center of attention, a real Energizer Bunny of dialogue. A lot of what we do is tongue-in-cheek and self-effacing. I really point to the Brit punk poet John Cooper-Clarke as the best example of what we do—it’s spoken word with evocative music of many genres, with a lot of Borscht Belt humor and rapido delivery thrown in. This track is one that represents what we like to do, keep it light story wise, with some serious compositions and musicianship.
Muro: It’s basically another “love gone wrong” poem—this time describing an irrational attachment that persists long after the writing is on the wall. Like when the thing is over and everybody knows it but you. And the incredulous boob is left wondering what ‘happened?’…as he recites a litany of transgressions that make it ridiculously clear and, yet still somehow he remains blind to the reality that it’s way, way over. Or at the very least, what’s left of the ‘relationship’ has morphed into something else without his consent. An absurd but all-too-typical situation, where an artist person succumbs to an obnoxious combo of narcissism and ambition and opportunity, that all converge to create an unfortunate scenario for the sidelined boyfriend. There is very little wisdom in this one. Just the list of insults kept by some poor deluded sap (laughs!) So, yes, as far as it having a NYC connection, that’s there for sure. Stuff like this can only happen in a city of a certain size, where a lively art scene is requisite to enable such extravagant antics to happen.
“Sex” is another song that seems to reject the subject it is affirming. After being locked down for so long, it hits me as a welcoming back of the mess of everyday life. Am I being fair here, or is a “chocolate telephone that melts all over your neck” sometimes a pleasant occurrence?
Muro: Yes! That’s a great way of putting it. The concept of sex in society has become so all-encompassing that it can overflow to include everything it’s not. It’s an obsession that can only lead to more of the same until you’re trapped in a box canyon of lust. For me, at least. The piece is as much about language and poetry as it is about sex itself, where talking is, or at least used to be, the main currency toward contact with the physical other. A collision of the spirit and the body. From a poetry point of view, sex can be a cardinal inspiration with the endless ways people can try and make it happen to them. And then how one’s perception of what’s going on can be described as its happening. In this overloaded culture the piece takes on a kitchen sink approach. It becomes everything. It’s all about loading it up, putting it in, then watching what happens after the sexual ‘event’ ripples through time, through one’s memory. Or not. And this, of course, can take us away from the act itself, where critical ‘over-think’ becomes the enemy of seizing the moment and all that’s left are a smoldering pile of words.
It’s kinda funny because I wrote that a while ago, before everybody had a cell phone, before texting, when there were still phone booths and people had to carry coins and we still talked at home on actual old-fashioned-looking telephones. I had a brown one. So, it’s coming from that. The power that conversation plays in driving people closer together. After a while your neck gets stiff and the whole thing does get kinda gooey.
Cataldi: Yes, what he said. On this one, I put it over a very textured, slow creeping blues, with a big fuck beat. This is one where I let Mark riff the recitation, then I took his reading and cut-and-pasted his words to meet the rhythm and the breaks in the beats in the tune. It’s crazy how the bluesy guitar fills seem to work perfectly as a call-and-response to his lines, although they are totally independent and isolated performances that fit very well together.
Frank Zappa seems the most obvious influence. But with your videos comprised of found imagery, there is an embrace of the internet’s unpredictability that contradicts the notorious precision of Zappa. At first blush, the work hits me as a YouTube or TikTok video gone wrong in the rightest possible way.
Cataldi: Musically, Vapor Vespers has a lot in common with the electric instrumental side of Spaghetti Eastern Music. My influences range from ‘70s Miles, Fripp/Eno and Krautrock to progrock, electronica, ambient, ECM jazz and progressive folk, and, yes, a huge dose of Zappa, for the music and the humor. The videos are a blast to make – $0 budget affairs with lots of found footage, the sputum of the internet as you say. The videos for these and the track “Timbuktu” from our debut album are about mood—wonderful junkyard visual finds that compliment Mark’s narratives and the musical feel.
Muro: Yeah, right, there’s that influence, definitely. The Zappa sensibility of comedic absurdity and parody and social commentary, not to mention his fantastic, incomparable music.
Sal makes the videos, which are artistic things unto themselves. He’s quite the editor. He has a great knack for finding the right images and slapping them together so they fit the music seamlessly. And I love the organic, hand-made, rough edge look he gets. Like home movies with a twist.
The new work is a departure from the first album. There is less space, more of a desire to get to the point. Was there a conscious decision to be more direct, or were you going for a particular mood?
Muro: As far as less space and a different kind of mood, if that’s something, its Sal’s decision. When we get together it goes very fast. We just go through different things and try to find a good match. Tempo and mood, I think, are probably the biggest considerations in determining what gets married to who. Sal would have to tell you more about this, because Sal supplies the tunes and shapes the final product. With that first album we made, Sal directed me as I read the poems, as the tracks played in real time. This time we did the same, or I just recited solo, and then he took the recording of the poem and moved the spoken lines around a bit to fit into what the music was doing, leaving spaces here and there for the music to expand.
Cataldi: It was a different approach because it was an intention to make independent statements that were more straightforward and digestible—two singles versus a magnum opus of different moods narratively and music genre-wise, which One Act Sonix was. “Sex” is an appealing slow blues with a lot of electronics and a heavy beat, not the old tired Chicago/Stevie Ray imitator kind, more like a spacey Delta vibe, and the subject, of course, is timeless. “You Changed” is our dance music track! (laughs). No, I thought the rapid beat and fractured No Wave funk of it was the perfect complement to Mark’s manic tale and acting. That one really is a performance—acting the part of the jilted loved with a kind of slapstick humor/punch lines attached. We cut four other tracks, two which are completed, but those are darker and more apocalyptic lyrically, and ambient/orchestral musically, more suitable for an album which we hope to get out by end of year.
You and Mark have a lot in common. But you are literally (because of distance) and figuratively (because of influences) coming from different places. How has Sal’s experience as a longstanding NYC musician played out in the project? And how has Mark’s life as a poet and playwright influenced what you’re doing?
Muro: Sal offers a trove of extraordinary compositions that might serve as settings for some of the things I’ve written over the years. All kinds of fantastic sonic landscapes that create a synergy between the words and the music. Sal’s music has the texture and depth and energy that supports and drives the spoken words forward, into something that I hope turns out unique and transformative. As far as his experiences go, Sal has lived a very different life from myself. He was in NYC, working and playing in all kinds of bands with all kinds of people, and has had a successful career of creative adventure in the belly of the PR beast. And now he still plays out, like all the time, every weekend practically, which is pretty amazing in itself. He has a lot of energy.
As for me, in 1980, I moved away to Alaska, which is probably the least urban place in the country. Up here in the hinterlands, almost paradoxically, I have had the opportunity to sample a broad range of experiences, artistic and otherwise. Alaska offers all the space one might need to do practically anything, for going both interior and exterior, as far as you want. Same as anywhere I suppose, but up here everything is highlighted and exaggerated by the extremes of isolation, geography, weather, the seasons, and all that. Plus, up here, we get an amazing variety of interesting people from all over the place, who come from far and wide to re-invent themselves. Or just for the ‘magic.” The Alaskan mythos exerts a tremendous pull. Which makes for a very interesting and highly viable place to create. And I love Americana, which we have up here in spades.
The fact that me and Sal complement each other so well with the Vapor Vespers project, is because we started out trying to write and record songs when we were kids, and we just kept at it, in various capacities, and never really stopped creating. Also, probably because of so much shared background, and influences, we have very similar artistic sensibilities. And of course, from growing up on the same street and being best friends and all that. So, we are very close, like brothers. So, our collaboration is very familiar and natural.
Cataldi: Yes, everything Mark said is spot-on. Like I said earlier, he was always the funniest, most entertaining and verbal guy in the room, always on. What he did in his move to Alaska is that he got into a smaller pond, one where he could try every and anything. He’s acted in films, written and performed many plays, done standup comedy, wrote poetry, wrote theatre reviews for the Anchorage Daily News, hosted a PBS radio show and produced a radio play of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and more. All these experiences gave him more stories and perspectives, the things he weaves into his pieces. Again, although he has published poetry and won prizes at poetry slams, I think what he does in more akin to a monologist/humorist like Spalding Gray. And married to music, his words and stories are really fueled with humor, sometimes purposefully juvenile, which does most remind me of John Cooper-Clarke.
After a full album not too long ago, the pair of new singles seems like a tease. Are you working on a new full-length? And perhaps even a tour? (assuming that we’re all not hiding under the covers again in a few months.)
Muro: Yes, I’d really like to get a bunch more tracks done and collected for a volume 2 or something. I think we can do that the next time I get back down to Sal’s studio in Woodstock. And the possibility of touring, that would be great, I’d love to do that!
Cataldi: Yes, I was planning to head up to Alaska and the Northwest to do some shows and Mark down to NYC again when “One Act Sonix” was released but Covid put an end to that. I know we will definitely keep doing what we are doing, recording-wise. And I think it would be really enjoyable to do live—when we can jump into the deep end of improvisation.
William Lessard has writing that has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, and the Southwest Review. He is Poetry & Hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review.