Drug Cabin have their own special California sound, matching the clean and pristine guitar—and pedal steel, too!—of the “Wasn’t Born To Follow” Byrds to the subtle wit and less-is-more rhythm of someone like Ned Doheny. Founder Nathan Thelen met Marcus Congleton after an informal invite to play a little guitar together and discovered him to be just the partner he needed; as Drug Cabin, they would be explosively prolific enough to put out two full albums earlier this year, with another taking form right now. They are in residency every Tuesday in July at Three Clubs. This interview by Chris Ziegler." /> L.A. Record


July 13th, 2015 | Interviews

photography by debi del grande

Drug Cabin have their own special California sound, matching the clean and pristine guitar—and pedal steel, too!—of the “Wasn’t Born To Follow” Byrds to the subtle wit and less-is-more rhythm of someone like Ned Doheny. Really, that’s a road trip from the high desert to the beaches, and that’s the way to get into Drug Cabin, who put heavy ideas in light-as-air songs and sometimes come up with lyrics just to make each other laugh. Founder Nathan Thelen met Marcus Congleton after an informal invite to play a little guitar together and discovered him to be just the partner he needed; as Drug Cabin, they would be explosively prolific enough to put out two full albums earlier this year, with another taking form right now. They meet us on the side of a hill (in what must be one of Echo Park’s most secret neighborhoods) to talk about what they need, what they want and what the doctor tells you when you have to fake a seizure to get emergency brain surgery. They are in residency every Tuesday in July at Three Clubs. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

What’s the least infrastructure that’s ever been available at one of your shows? How little do you need to perform?
Nathan Thelen (vocals / guitar): We run the gamut!
Marcus Congleton (vocals / guitar): We went to play this house party that didn’t have a PA system. We got on stage and realized they had mics but no PA.
Just mics laying on the ground?
Nathan Thelen: Like little Bob Barker microphones!
Marcus Congleton: We eventually got it together and plugged into some amps.
Nathan Thelen: ‘You guys didn’t bring your own PA?’
Marcus Congleton: And they had backstage passes. For a house party. They made laminates. We didn’t get any. And to take it further, they passed the donation bucket around and didn’t give any of it to us. And we lost a guitar at that show. We left some infrastructure there.
Nathan Thelen: And I had the flu, too!
Marcus Congleton: But it came out pretty well. The mics going through the guitar amps sounded cool.
Has more ever gone wrong at once for you?
Nathan Thelen: People don’t show up. But if you go with the basic expectation of making it work with whoever is there and whatever instruments they have, you can get the point across.
Marcus Congleton: That’s how the Chuck Berry band played! No setlist! Just show up and follow him—go!
Nathan Thelen: That’s the Holy Grail.
And you can refuse to play til you get your briefcase of cash.
Marcus Congleton: That’s the dream.
Nathan Thelen: A crocodile skin one.
Marcus Congleton: Or titanium.
Nathan Thelen: Like Jason Stratham.
Marcus Congleton: Or just something with a lock.
You have songs called ‘Baywatch,’ ‘California,’ ‘Hollywood,’ ‘Beverly Glen’—it’s very explicitly California. But how do you both actually experience California? For me, I realized most of the time I spend where I actually feel I’m in California involves being in the car. When you write about California, what are you actually writing about?
Marcus Congleton: For the song ‘California,’ it’s just the word. I was talking to my girlfriend about how many songs use the word ‘California,’ and wondering why? Maybe it’s just nice to say.
Nathan Thelen: The other ones are just adjacent details for words. I’m crazy about California, though. It’s like how John Denver sings about Colorado or West Virginia. Like ‘what’s around you?’ Sometimes I feel that the most important thing about writing something is to relax enough to notice what’s around me. Like the song ‘Handsome’ is vaguely lyrically about this time I was at Hanson Dam in Sun Valley. It got morphed into ‘handsome.’ And while I was swimming in the dam, some kid dooked in it, and they had to clear the pool. So off the loudspeaker you hear like the teenagers working there like, ‘PUMP THE CHLORINE!’ It was a humongous poo.
How did you get from a kid shitting at a dam to the actual song? Is that the line, ‘I’m asking for a second chance / even though it’s not in your careful hands’?
Nathan Thelen: I’m not sure there’s a literal line! That was just the day I went to Hanson Dam. And also the day I wrote that song. That’s how I write—taking an experience and breaking it down to the abstract. It’s like if you’re making a secret message for somebody, even if they might not get it.
What makes you work that way instead of just writing more directly? Like the ‘Reagan sucks’ school of songwriting?
Nathan Thelen: I’ve never had any success writing that way. I don’t think I’m that out there, but I’ve never been able to be like, ‘OK, I need to work on this topic.’ What works for me is just writing a song really quickly, trying to tap into unconscious thoughts and not worry if they make any sense. Usually the first thing that comes into your mind is the thing that works with the rhythm and the melody. I try and get it done in one sitting, even if it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I got ten minutes and I gotta go to work!’ And if it sucks, it sucks, and if it’s good, it’s good. It’s probably truest to the way my brain works.
Are you songs autobiographical? Short stories? Reportage? Impressions?
Marcus Congleton: It’s different depending on the song. They go more toward comedy when we’re doing co-writes.
Nathan Thelen: If we’re writing together, we’re having more fun with wordplay.
Marcus Congleton: We’ll choose the funniest line of all the options. We like to make it so there’s open possibilities to it, too. Lyrics that could have different meanings.
Nathan Thelen: And if someone wanted to think it was funny, they could get a kick out of it.
What’s a word you could say but never sing because it’d be too awkward?
Nathan Thelen: ‘Awkward.’ That’s a weird word.
Marcus Congleton: That’d be hard. The ‘W’ and the ‘K.’
Nathan Thelen: Probably country music songs say that. In Morongo Valley, I went line-dancing last night. They have it every Sunday. It’s like four older ladies, maybe one really hot farmer girl and like a DJ. They do a mix, where every other song is hip-hop and then country. I didn’t know there was such a connection—but they’ve got the same beat, the same sort of things going on. And they say ‘awkward.’ Plus they show the videos at the same time, and the videos are all partying on the beach with jetskis either way. Everyone sings along—like an old lady singing, ‘Back dat ass up!’ Both at the same time.
If you could have one person in your record collection magically appear and edit your lyrics, who would it be? Who would you trust enough to mess with your work?
Marcus Congleton: I like to think of the farthest craziest parameters of writing lyrics. For me, that’s Queen, Slayer and Kraftwerk. The coolest, craziest most creative things you can do. I’d be comfortable with them editing anything. [What they do] feels like unlimited creativity. The harmonies Queen do, the crazy-ass things Slayer say right off the bat and Kraftwerk’s perfect melodies and rhythms and the way they put songs together—and they’re all perfect pop bands. No matter what you like, those three bands have amazing shit going on. I like to think about them all the time. We have some new songs we’re working on with crazy huge harmonies that we’re calling ‘Queen harmonies.’ Bee-Gees, kind of, too.
Those are also bands that were really about like … craft. Not just happy accidents.
Marcus Congleton: But we rely on that, too. It takes some of both to get good ones. We’re doing it now, writing songs and combing through old ones to make a new roster. Nathan’s written some amazing ones. It’s songwriting and details but also spontaneity and personality but not overdoing it, if you can help it. There’s a thin line. We gotta have the songs really well sketched-out so we’re not paying for studio time trying to think of lyrics or how chord parts go, but we also wanna allow something spontaneous to happen cuz sometime that’s the best stuff.
Are you able to apply this finely honed sense of balance elsewhere in your life?
Marcus Congleton: No! Not at all. That’s why I like music, you know? It has its own rules and logic you can bend and break and appreciate.
Is ‘Jesus’ your most Slayer-like lyric?
Marcus Congleton: Yeah, but they don’t party to Jesus. I’d say our satanic references are way more underplayed.
Nathan Thelen: Or yet to come!
Nathan, you’ve got a spot out in the desert you can visit when you want to get out of L.A. How would these albums be different if you couldn’t switch environments like that?
Nathan Thelen: Whenever I travel, I always take photos. I’m more curious about my surroundings. At home, I’m in a different mode. I rarely want to take photos! Being at home in L.A. is a lot of work, logistical stuff …
Like you don’t need to remember any of that? The routine deadens you?
Marcus Congleton: That happens to me. And is happening to me!
That’s a confusing part of being creative. To do the work, sometimes you need to not do the work.
Nathan Thelen: I think about that all the time. I think how good it feels to quit things. It’s the best feeling. Every time I quit something taking over my life and I finally feel like I’m not gonna do it any more, I walk out and the birds are chirping and it’s a huge relief! I feel great! Like—why did I waste so much time?
What was your first best quit?
Nathan Thelen: Easy. I was raised Catholic and was an altar boy for years, going to church ten times a week and I finally had to become confirmed at a Catholic—I was like, ‘Ah, this is so much fucking bullshit and I hate this. So fuck it—I quit.’ I quit altogether. And that was a huge relief. Before I had all this … Catholic guilt! And fear of my mom being upset, and she was [but] it was fine. Living in somebody else’s idea of how you should think is much worse than just disappointing people.
You’ve both come from other bands with complicated histories. When you got together, what kind of things did you not want to make a part of Drug Cabin? What were your ideas for leaving things out?
Nathan Thelen: When we got together, we already had enough experience with what didn’t feel good. Stuff that wasn’t fun, that wasn’t inspiring—there’s so much bullshit. Like I really didn’t like this aspect or that aspect of playing with people—I couldn’t be in a band where everyone is arguing and takes themselves seriously. It drives me bananas. I always wanted to be in a band capable of doing all the songs in any situation and any arrangement musically, and not be super-dependent on the details. I’ve never been in that band before. It’s been like, ‘I don’t have the sampler, so I can’t play that song.’ I wanted to simplify it! It’s more about the simple songs you can do.
Marcus Congleton: And that don’t depend on an instrument or pedal to make a song work. So if you don’t have a spare battery, you have to change the set list. Those songs aren’t even worth it a lot of the time.
Like we touched on before, though—having all those effects going can sometimes offer some security. When you’re out there with just guitar and voice, you can’t hide. There’s no protection.
Marcus Congleton: We have the protection in numbers of people. There’s six of us. We have this great keyboard player, our pedal-steel player … it’s not the pedals or samplers, but we do have a security blanket with just … music. That’s what makes it fun live, too—the choices they make and the way they play.
Nathan Thelen: The extra details aren’t the most important thing. They can be, and I know bands that sound so good and they have like a light show going on and that adds a lot for people. But for us, it wouldn’t work. I’m not trying to fool anybody. I guess I’ve humiliated myself on stage before. It totally sucks but it makes me know what I’m doing better.
How do musicians fool people?
Nathan Thelen: It’s classic case of polishing a turd. It’s all about the song, you know? I don’t know if I’ve accomplished it as a musical goal yet, but I like the idea of writing music that other people could play. I’ve been in bands before and it’s not something someone could pick up a guitar and easily do like a rendition of it. Or piano or whatever. So I like it more about the song, and cutting out all the extra stuff—having a structure and skeleton simple enough to be easily reproduced.
So not just accessible to listen to, but accessible to reproduce as well? Did you learn to play like that?
Nathan Thelen: I didn’t learn how to play like that at all. I was in bands and writing parts. But in the last six or so years I started learning other people’s songs and it was really enjoyable. Some of them are too complicated—for me—not that anybody else couldn’t do it! But for me it’s nice to play along with them. It’s easy to be in our band and have a rotating cast of characters. I’ve been in bands where it’s like, ‘You play this part three times, and this four times,’ and I’ve never ever done that in our band. It’s like, ‘The verse is in E.’ It’s loose and simple enough that that’s enough for anyone to play along. I like that. Micromanaging doesn’t work for any part of my life. If that was in the music, it’d make it tedious.
Where do you never overlap as writers? What’s something Nathan does that Marcus never touches?
Marcus Congleton: I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t use in Drug Cabin that I really like—I wouldn’t want to play it anywhere else. I don’t think it would do us any good to set any kind of limits. I don’t know why anyone would do that. Why even be making art, if you’re trying to make it a certain way?
Sometimes people set limits for security, so they know they’re in a place they’re safe. And sometimes it’s a challenge—how much can be done with how little?
Marcus Congleton: That can work for some people. We made two albums on 8-track tape, and that limit was good for us. We didn’t spend a lot of time trying to overdub. We had to know all the parts and commit to what we were playing. Having that limit helped us focus.
The studio you recorded at is Gaucho Electronics—home of Bleached, No Age, Hunx and his Punx, Feels … Drug Cabin is possibly the most understated band to come out of there. What happens when you play a studio against type?
Nathan Thelen: I thought it played into type. It was stripped-down and bare, and that’s how we approach stuff too. The song is what it is, with the parts all written and not a lot of extra overdub stuff or a lot of extra engineering. We’re not a perfectionist sort of band. We let the songs play themselves, and that lent itself really well to this studio, cuz there’s nothing else to do there! And he’s like that, too. Back to basics. Which is exactly what we wanted out of recording.
Marcus Congleton: We were recording some songs with ProTools and layering them and we didn’t like how they came out. Then when we needed to go into the studio, I had a medical emergency.
Is this going to explain that interview you did where the person is like, ‘So how are you?’ and you say, ‘I’m in surgery for a brain tumor,’ and the interview just moves on with no further acknowledgement? I was like … this is either a fearlessly morbid joke or an email interview.
Marcus Congleton: I was typing that interview from the hospital radiology unit. I was going to send a picture with the IV coming out of me. But that’d be so dark. I didn’t do it.
Nathan Thelen: But it’d be honest. That’s what I would do.
Marcus Congleton: So I have a brain tumor, and I got diagnosed in September 2013. I had headaches, and I didn’t think they could be tumor-related. Then I had a seizure and I went to the hospital and they scanned me and said I had a tumor. I didn’t have insurance and I woke up and I didn’t know what happened, and they were like, ‘You have a lesion or a tumor on your brain and we recommend immediate surgery. If you don’t have at least $100,000 in insurance you need to get out of here right now and go to [County Hospital].’ And it was a two-day wait at the county ER, so the doctor told me to go and pretend to have a seizure. He said, ‘You look like an actor,’ and he told me exactly how to do it. I didn’t know I’d had a seizure—I didn’t even know what was going on. So I didn’t do that. I called some people and went to County for treatment and I had the surgery but I still have the tumor. I do have medication for it. This is the backdrop for doing the record. I had the surgery coming up and we felt like we had to do it fast, and Gaucho was pretty much the only thing we tried and it worked. So we went back and did the other album a month later. From February to April.
Were you ever like, ‘You know, though … I really do look like an actor!’
Marcus Congleton: No.
How did this confrontation with death and the fucked up health care system affect your songwriting?
Marcus Congleton: That stuff was really terrifying, and it still is. But it really helped me put songs together cuz I had all these pieces and little things I’d been working on for the past few years, and when this all happened to me, I had to stop drinking, stop doing a lot of things I was doing … and even thought it was horrible in a lot of ways, I wanted to focus on music and it became a lot easier for me to do that. Even though these things were going on, I wanted to play music more and have fun with it. It kind of unclogged the creativity for me. It made it easier to focus on what I wanted to do and do the songs how I wanted them to be.
It’s like if someone told you the world was gonna end in a week—would you spend that time making a record?
Marcus Congleton: That’s just what happened. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I still have the tumor. I can’t get it removed. Even though I’m healthy and stable now, that’s how it felt at the time. And still a little of what it feels like—that’s the equation for me now, permanently.
Nathan, did you bring Marcus in because things he did do, or something he didn’t do?
Nathan Thelen: Both and neither. When we first started, it was like, ‘Hey, wanna come over and play?’ We didn’t have a purpose at first. Then ‘Let’s go try and play shows, just acoustic.’ We did a bunch of shows like that, and then, ‘Let’s get a band together.’ We kept the name because it was the easiest thing to do.
Marcus Congleton: It’s just a club of whoever can do it—whoever wants to do it.
And it’s a different live band now, isn’t it?
Marcus Congleton: Different from the record except Frankie [Palmer, pedal steel.] I know him from high school in Eugene, Oregon. We played in a band and he started playing pedal steel a few years ago. We played in Venice at the Del Monte and that was Frankie’s first time doing a show with us, and that club has a really great sound system. It was a new level of awesome. We’d done shows as just a four-piece and having pedal steel kicked it to a new dimension. We just wanted him to play on everything!
Nathan Thelen: When I listen to the records now, I almost always listen to the pedal steel.
Marcus Congleton: We don’t really play lead guitar. It’s 90% clean rhythm guitar, and Frankie does everything a lead guitar might be doing. All the sliding Pink Floyd Grateful Dead stuff—he can do all of that.
You seem to both have a lot of nuanced perspective on small-group relationships—if we took away your guitars, where would you fit best in society?
Marcus Congleton: Music is not a business anymore, so a lot of musicians are asking, ‘What do I do now? Where do I fit?’ There’s lots of jokes about unemployed musicians. Teaching is OK but I don’t really love it. I’d rather play music whether or not anyone pays for it. That’s one of the philosophies of Drug Cabin. We’re just guys who wanna play whether or not it’s gonna do something for us or make a buck—it’s for ourselves and whoever’s paying attention, and that makes it fun.
So maybe if society collapses, you could be wandering hobo troubadours—going from encampment to encampment singing it like it is?
Marcus Congleton: Nathan’s there, man! He’s got a place in the desert—a compound. He’s ready. I’m not sure if I am. I gotta get some canned food and a shotgun.