Music Features

Andrew Cedermark (Interview)

It’s been over ten years since Andrew Cedermark left New Jersey punk group Titus Andronicus, ten since his debut Moon Deluxe, and seven since his last solo project, Home Life. The initial decision to leave Titus came from the intensity of touring. Talking to PopMatters a few months ago, he explained it by saying that “'s a little too short to surround yourself with people who are just like you” and described the touring cycle as a cultural echo chamber. Cedermark’s collections of hazy indie rock were received well in the early 2010s, but didn’t really make a long term splash. “I’m going home,” sang Cedermark at the climax of 2013’s At Home, and that’s what he did.

Cedermark wrote for a few publications, got married, and started working towards a Masters degree. These events create the backdrop for Fort/da, his first album in seven years, and one of the lovely surprises of this year. It’s a quiet album of hushed acoustic guitars, fluctuating synths, and brushed drumwork. The softness fits with his history, as Cedermark is a great artist that seems to undervalue his work. When I compared his deadpan voice to the late David Berman, he sounded shocked to be put in the same sentence as the Silver Jews frontman. A 2011 NPR article about him had the headline of Comfortable in Hiding, but it seems like he’s grown away from that image. I sat down with Andrew a little bit ago to discuss Fort/da, woodworking, being an English teacher, and more:

I follow you on Instagram, and I wanted to say that you seem to have the most lovely life. How is the woodworking going?

My life is okay, for now (laughs). I’m a teacher by day, and I work with young people who are almost exclusively, in some way, marginalized by virtue of their race, socioeconomic status, language, or culture. As it has been for many people, the last year has been really eye-opening. For a lot of white people, it’s brought on a lot of feelings of shame, and “what am I supposed to do” and things like that. So, I have a series of professional obligations that I take really seriously that I hope will make the world a more just place, at least for my students. In my personal life, I started woodworking and building things. As I white person, I am programmed to build things for profit, so I was thinking—for my own personal profit, that is—what if I found a way to pursue a new hobby that was kind of in service of, not just myself, but [brought] me joy and spread some money around the world.

I started doing some woodworking, and the idea is that if any of the readers want to buy something, I’m happy to sell whatever anybody wants. The idea is to buy the materials, and whatever the materials cost, the person who is buying the thing donates the rest to a racial justice organization of their choice. I’ve found it really satisfying. COVID has been very difficult for many people, and for me, one thing I found helpful is having something to do with my hands. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve donated some money. Hopefully that’ll continue.

Are you teaching online? Or in person? How is that going?

I teach at a public school in Manhattan, and when COVID first hit and we went all remote, it was devastating to our whole community. Having had the summer to think about how to do better now has meant that we’re doing a little bit better by students. That said, it’s very difficult because a lot of students I teach tenth are graders, and,a lot of kids have kind of disappeared. There are many other students who are showing up in the building—we’re in the building two days a week for now, and are like, “Man, I’m never going to take school for granted ever again.’

Often, when we think about what a school is, we don’t think of how many problems having a physical space that we share provides [solutions to]. I think a lot of students have realized, “woah, I kind of rely on school in a way I didn’t realize I would and I feel bad for missing classes or not taking it seriously previously.” There’s a sense that we’re all in it together, and [are] trying to get through together, even if that’s only partially true.

On the single, Idiot, you mention a village idiot coming round, and at one point, you sing, “Look who you married, it’s a nightmare.” Would you say you’re self-deprecating in your music?

Yeah, I’ve been really working on not be self-deprecating in my music and in my personal life. For some reason, playing music was always really wrapped up in shame for me, and I’m trying to get beyond that. I think that you can still hear kind of my shame reaction to myself making music in the lyrics, which is, you know, it’s real. It’s a real part of the person who makes the music; take that for what it’s worth. Is it something that I do intentionally? I’m not really so sure. Am I proud of it? Not really, but I guess that’s me being self-deprecating again. 

That makes sense, as your music is an extension of who you are as a person. Having read a lot of articles and interviews about your career, there seems to be this narrative that’s been pushed upon you that you’ve become a quiet, at home musician who has slowly been less and less involved in marketing yourself and pushing your music. Have you noticed that? Do you have any feelings towards it?

In 2013, in a kind of self-important way, when Home Life was coming out, I was thinking to myself that I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I didn’t want to tour but I want[ed] to be known as a musician, and that didn’t really work out. Something that remains from that time is...well, you said it before [in that] what you write is an extension of who you are and how you live. All the songs are about my life, I guess, or how I see the world. So, I’m lucky to have any narrative associated with me by others, let me put it that way. [Especially] given how long I haven’t done anything for it, or put anything out for it, or played for it. 

The music video for My Heart features clips of hikes in the Meadowlands you went on with your dog Benny, which were shot right as Andrew Cuomo announced a state of emergency for New York in March. You mention in the video’s text crawl that you’ve been pondering “solastolgia” recently. Do you have a lot of anxiety about climate change, and even the future, generally?

Yeah, obviously. I think it’s in the spirit of the name of the record, these cycles that we used to be able to rely on. Seasons, for example, feel increasingly unpredictable. The history of our country is one of exploitation of people and the environment. Maybe it helps to situate this current anxiety in the longer ranging, even somewhat optimistic trajectory of the Meadowlands, which people think of as the most fucked up place, but it’s actually really pretty when you go there. Even looking at Instagram, I feel like half of the pictures I see are beautiful pictures that people took of gas stations or crumbling buildings. For life to be worth living, there has something beautiful even about the parts of the world we’re fucking up. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t stop fucking it up.

This record has come 7 years after your last, and you recorded this one at home on your own on an iPad.

It was recorded almost exclusively on an iPad. I used to live in Brooklyn. I had a practice space out there, and then some of it was [recorded] here where I currently live in Jersey City, and some was at my apartment in Brooklyn, and some of the stuff is old enough that I recorded it in Charlottesville when I lived down in Virginia. Another thing that I’ve found inspiring, and this connects to woodworking, is what kind of beautiful thing can you do with tools that people do not take seriously. This is particularly interesting in what I would have called the indiesphere when I was more out and about. So much of what I would have once called indie is so polished and professional. It’s very interesting that that’s happened because I thought the revolutionary potential of the music always lay in people’s interest in breaking rules, and it seems like the rules have reasserted themselves in “indie” music. Do people still use the word indie for things? Like, what is this music? I’m asking.

That’s a great question, cause I was at a loss to describe Fort/Da recently. I guess indie is a good broad term for it, but it’s kind of folky? I’ve never been good with genre terms. It’s interesting what you said about indie music. I want to ask, was there like a part of your life where you were up to date on the kind of Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan type stuff of the world?

Sure, yeah. When I was twenty two, or twenty three, I got a couple of write-ups in Pitchfork and I thought I was the absolute shit. I read it obsessively as a teenager, and [with] all these things I was super obsessive. It was a good education. I learned a lot about music by reading about it all of the time. Writing about music was great too, I did some of that. People should write about things they care about, it’s fun. I was an arts editor at an alt-weekly in Charlottesville, when alt-weeklies still existed. Then I worked at a newspaper in New Jersey, but that was before I did teaching, which I’m seven or eight years into now.

I wanted to get into the individual stories behind some of these songs. I love the backyard, fiddling-with-your-guitar feel of the song Sliding and I was wondering if there were any particular moments of inspiration attached to these songs.

I’m thinking of the song Ford/da itself, and sort of, getting back to the title of the record. The chorus of that song is about, who knows if the birds that leave for winter are the same ones that come back. It all ties into the title. Another one of the songs might have something to do with getting married, maybe something like that. When I’m writing, I don’t really think about what [the songs] are about, per say. Whether or not they have an aboutiness to them is up to whoever is listening.

You mention flowers and roses a couple of times. Does it have an importance to the album? Does it possibly tie back into getting married?

I’m just realizing that there are flowers on the record (laughs). That started with the song Rows and Rows of Roses; that comes up there because it’s a pun. Or not a pun, it’s some language-play. That song has a lot of playing on a road, a door, rows, roses. That one is sort of, if you play with the language, what kind of songs [come from that]. If you pull a thread, and there’s something there, and you keep pulling it, all of a sudden there’s flowers all over the record. I think that’s pretty cool. Flowers are nice.

You’ve said that the title track here is about the Cape Romano Dome House in Florida. What does that place mean to you? Have you ever been there?

I think that there is a thread that connects what is going on in [the Fort/da] video and lyrics to what’s happening in the My Heart video, which is about cycles and destruction, and even in the course of being destroyed, some things take on a new beauty or utility. In that video, there are these images of, I just did a public domain image search of this house. I’ve never been there and I don’t even know how I encountered it. The images of [the Cape Romano Dome house] being gradually destroyed, and people desperately trying to save it, and then it being repurposed as a graffiti-covered, jet ski, pleasure cruise destination is really fascinating. I thought it spoke to the ideas of cycles, being out of control, [and] lack of control. I’m realizing as I’m saying this, that there’s an optimism embedded in there, which I don’t necessarily feel. But it might be there, for better or for worse.

I want to talk about the title of the album, which comes from a Freudian idea about control and nature of repetition. I think it fits really well. Why did you choose that title? 

You mentioned the word repetition. In my own life, I have been getting interested in how to be okay with things—not changing all the time, and how as you get older there’s less and less novelty. The cycles repeat, like the beginning of a new year or whatever. They sort of take on a numbing regularity that feels like that Fort/da cycle that Freud described, but really the reason why I chose that for the title is because we’re at an interesting point in history. Imagine you’re a small child and you’re throwing the rattle out of the bed. You can have the reasonable expectation that someone is going to return the rattle to you and life will go on. Now, here we are, and as a world, I’ve been thinking basically (laughs), "Who will save us now? Who will return the rattle now?" All of these things that once felt like predictable cycles now feel like they are in uncharted territory. Who’s going to save us now? Who’s going to keep the game going? I think the answer is no one, which is an interesting place to be.