Cavashawn Takes on Chicago

3 Nov

Bordering Chinatown and the south side of Chicago on South State Street is a rundown liquor store and Reggie’s Rock Club.  On the corner outside the liquor store one evening last May, a group of black men loitered on the sidewalk, leering at women walking past and picking fights with each other.

Half a block away inside Reggie’s Rock Club, a local band named Cavashawn was performing the opening set.  The quartet of 23-year-old shaggy-haired white men in matching white v-necks grooved to their simple rock rhythms and catchy melodies.

Scott Salmon © Copyright 2008 Linda Hays

The singer, Scott Salmon, who stood out in his black button-down shirt, loosely danced around the stage in a way that resembled Johnny Depp’s swagger in Pirates of the Caribbean.   Chris Hellmann jammed on his guitar while Benton Kubicki complemented him on bass and Jesse Feister powered the music with his drums.

Since the club is located in a sketchy area and the band was not well known, Cavashawn’s audience was sparse.  A handful of teenage girls wearing concert tees and hipster glasses stood towards the front.  About twenty other people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were scattered in the audience.

With such a thin crowd it was hard to imagine that the Cincinnati Enquirer once hailed these guys formerly known as Marking Twain as Cincinnati’s “teen icons.” But when the band moved to Chicago in 2007 and changed its name to Cavashawn, it went from playing to crowds of over 400 people to these meager audiences of less than 50.

Although the band lost a few fans in Ohio because it has not been concentrating on that area as much, the members of Cavashawn do not regret the move to Chicago.  “We’ve gained a legitimate fan base here in Chicago,” said Hellmann, “whereas in Cincinnati it was mostly family and friends who came to shows.  People are starting to take notice of our presence in Chicago and are taking it seriously.  In Cincinnati it’s hard for people to take you seriously as a band.”

While it was hard to be taken seriously in Cincinnati, Marking Twain was fairly well known in Ohio. Marking Twain got its first taste of fame when the members of the band were only juniors in high school.  After the group won Cincinnati’s citywide band challenge in 2002, Marking Twain gained recognition and landed some big-time gigs.

“It was definitely a big break,” said Feister of the band challenge win.  “It was the moment when we started taking the band more seriously… We got a lot of shows and we opened for a lot of artists that were pretty famous.” Some of these artists included John Mayer, Ingrid Michelson, Fabolous, Jason Mraz, and OneRepublic.

Chris Hellmann © Copyright 2008 Linda Hays

When the members of Marking Twain graduated from Miami University of Ohio, they moved Chicago in August 2007. “We felt Chicago provided the opportunity to be exposed in a much larger market of fans and music industry professionals,” said Hellmann.  “Cincinnati and Ohio in general just doesn’t provide that.”

Along with the change in location came a change in the band’s name. On the advice of Uppercut Management the band changed its name from Marking Twain to Hey Hostage.  Shortly after, the band’s name changed again to Cavashawn.  The story behind the names is a mystery the guys want to keep, though they say there is a meaning for them in both Cavashawn and Marking Twain.

Not everyone was happy with the band’s name change.  After the group became known as Cavashawn, a fan from West Virginia drove nine hours from her home to the guys’ apartment in Chicago.  She banged on their door and demanded they change their name back because she had “Marking Twain” tattooed on her butt.  Despite her outrageous effort, the name stuck.

The winter of 2007 brought trouble for Cavashawn.  The guys went 10K into debt after recording a demo in November 2007.  Drew Butcher, who played guitar and keyboard in Marking Twain, left the band in the beginning of December.

They didn’t let these hardships discourage them, though. “It was a little overwhelming at first to start over in a big city like Chicago trying to build fans,” said Hellmann, “but we came up with a good strategy of putting up posters, handing out fliers at shows, and talking to people on Myspace that has been very effective so far.”  By using this strategy and calling colleges to get whatever gigs they could, Cavashawn was able to book more shows in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

With Butcher’s departure and the adjustment to the Chicago music scene, Cavashawn’s sound is much simpler and more focused than that of Marking Twain. “We quickly realized the Maroon 5 sound [of Marking Twain] no longer suited our band and the scene in Chicago,” said Hellmann.  “We realized we would have a better chance at succeeding if we stripped down the song structures and made it more straight ahead rock and roll.”  Critics compared Marking Twain to Weezer and Maroon 5, but Cavashawn is like early Beatles, who had a similar simplicity.

“You get a good idea of what we sound like when you see us live—just simple guitar, bass, and drums,” added Salmon, whose voice has matured since the Marking Twain days, which adds soul to the music.

The members of Cavashawn have faced rough times since moving to Chicago but they still have their boyish sense of humor.  There are some moments, though, when the line between teasing and the ridiculousness of their reality is fuzzy.  “Every Thursday night, Scott turns on MTV and watches The Hills,” said Feister of songwriter Salmon’s inspiration.  “Whatever emotions he feels when he watches the show, he just writes.  Most of the new songs are about Spencer.”  Although that statement seems like a jest, there is some truth to it.  Of the four songs on their 2008 EP, two (“Just Because” and “Thrill”) have love or break-up themes.

Fresh from a two-week stint in the recording studio, Cavashawn is releasing a new 5-track EP early next year.  There are also some new songs that won’t be on the EP but will be performed in upcoming shows.  According to Salmon, it is important to introduce songs during live shows because the response helps the band decide what to record.

Salmon and Feister © Copyright 2008 Linda Hays

Although Cavashawn has yet to be signed by a record label, getting signed isn’t one of their bigger concerns.   “It’s important for us to be able to do this as a career,” said Salmon.  “You have to hold on to things as long as you can and not be so quick to hand them out to a label.  A lot of bands do and they’re only around for two years, then they disappear.  That’s a big fear of ours.”

While Cavashawn is not yet playing for the massive crowds that it did as Marking Twain, it isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.  The strength of its fan base in Chicago has come a long way since the show at Reggie’s last May.

On November 1, Cavashawn headlined the Beat Kitchen, a small venue on the north side of Chicago.  The 50 or so people in the audience, a significantly larger crowd than at Reggie’s, were mostly Cavashawn fans.  A few people emulated the signature Cavashawn “look” by wearing v-neck t-shirts and vests.  When Salmon held the microphone out in the audience during a few verses, most of the crowd sung the lyrics back to him.

Towards the end of the set, Salmon addressed the audience of adoring fans.  “When we moved here a year ago we had no one but each other,” he said with a smile.  “But now we have all of you, and that’s amazing.”

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