Earlier this year, we were won over by the spirited charge of Sinai Vessel, an emo band with songs that were bold and ambitions bolder still. Differing lineups have revolved around its creator, Caleb Cordes, and given all of the changes and the charmingly humble humanity of the Profanity EP, we wanted to rummage further into the depths of his quite lovely brain.
Noted: You’ve been touring and have announced your scheduled appearance at FEST 13. What does this involvement mean to you? Where would you like to take the band next?
Caleb Cordes: All things considered, Fest 12 and Fest 13 are perfect bookends to an expanse of time that has held a ton of change for both me and the band. Last year’s Fest arrived in the middle of a rough personal season. I was failing classes, drinking a whole lot, in and out of counseling, battling depression and not leaving my tiny one-person dorm room for days. On top of all that, Profanity was in post-production hell for the foreseeable future, we weren’t playing shows, and our lineup seemed to be in flux once again. The weekend of Fest 12 (my first) was a lovely time in the midst of it all, but it too was bittersweet–I witnessed on a grand scale how tight-knit the DIY community was, but I wasn’t nearly as involved within it as I’d liked to have been. It was a circle of friends tangibly within reach that circumstance seemed to bar us from entering.
Since then, almost all of the above has changed for the better. Profanity wound up exceeding my hopes and was positively received. My personal issues have been on a gradual upswing. I’ve been completely sober for almost six months. Daniel and Josh have rounded out our ranks permanently and thus we’ve toured harder than ever this year. We’ve been granted opportunity after opportunity. Most of all, we’ve somehow garnered the vocal support of bands and humans that we look up to–the kind of friendships I envied from afar in years prior. We’re by no means “making it” or coasting on waves of critical acclaim, but we’re exactly where I wanted to be a year ago. Forward motion is all I can ask for.
“I don’t believe I’m waxing faux humility when I say that every mile marker in our road was reached via the investment of someone else.”
In regards to the future, I’d just like to set our sights upon growth. Before Danny and Josh joined, Sinai Vessel was more or less myself and a revolving cast of helping hands. Now it’s the cohesive unit I’d always hoped for, so we’re learning–in many senses for the first time–how to exist as a band. We’re writing a record that is, in my mind, our first full-length, and it’s such a relief to focus on writing guitar parts and lyrics rather than micromanaging a whole song. The other guys are killing it, and I never could’ve predicted what kind of sum would come out of our union.
Noted: If you could attribute your success thus far to one thing, what would it be?
Caleb Cordes: There are so many factors I could point to rattle off endless thanks towards, but a great portion of those causes have the kindnesses of others as their common denominator. That’s really the “one thing.” Even if I was stripped of the tireless aid Josh and Danny now provide (a kindness in itself), I could continue writing material—not great material, but material nonetheless. The minute I’d release it into the world, however, is the minute in which all “success” depends on the other. Every show, physical pressing, bit of exposure, piece of advice, kind word or listenership that we receive is a dispensation of someone’s effort, and I do my best to keep from forgetting it. I don’t believe I’m waxing faux humility when I say that every mile marker in our road was reached via the investment of someone else. We’ve the privilege of friends that have legitimately dragged us through slower periods for the sake of their belief in us (insert a chorus of gratitude to Lions here), and their involvement kept us alive.
These debts don’t devalue our music, but bolster it. I’m very proud of the art we’re making and how we continue to perfect pulling it off in the live setting (if the kindness of others is at the top of the list, working our asses off to become a solid live band is absolutely number two), but beyond us doing our best to accomplish our vision we’re not entitled to anyone’s attention. I’m just hyped that our craft is a product of community effort. We’ll attempt to kill it every night to do those efforts of others justice and turn some heads, but whether those heads choose to engage is up to them.
Noted: You are frequently humbled by the reaction to your music, both the number of people that listen to you and the amount of people invested in and considerate of the deeper meanings. Do you find it a comfort to know that your own thoughts resonate with so many others? Or is it more a shame to see that your malaises are shared?
Caleb Cordes: It’s absolutely a comfort for a great many reasons. The end product of disillusionment is alienation, and alienation leaves you yearning for empathetic company. Reckoning with the consequences of truth that dismantles constructs you once believed in places you at odds with anyone still blinded by falsity. Being alerted to a threat in the midst of a complacent context generates anxiety–anxiety that eats away at the sufferer’s sanity if left alone. Profanity spawned from that anxiety. It’s a cry for community–not one that merely nurses wounds and coddles the hurting, but one that principally seeks to confront problems at hand. It’s a great relief to find others who understand why your sky is falling.
“Profanity was, in a strictly personal sense, about realizing there was something fishy about the Christian culture I inhabited.”
So bearing the effect of witnessing a disparity between what is and what ought to be is never shameful. It’s critical awareness and it hurts. It’s a worthwhile pain. It means you’re awake; your senses are healthy and attuned. We’re formed to believe these faculties exist for the sole sake of feeling pleasure and allow that notion to eclipse their use in detecting danger.
Receiving word of our music resonating with others also soothes the worry that I wrote a record that is too specific to my experience to be relatable. I’d like to think that there are no prerequisites for considering these “deeper meanings” besides the willingness to freely engage in open conversation about them, both between listeners and within the listener herself. I don’t believe that spirituality is a matter reserved for only the religious. All struggles have a great deal in common—on either side of any issue there are ethical quandaries, questions about what the good life is and how to get there. Possessing a background in evangelical Christianity isn’t essential to participation in the questions we present, and I’m immensely glad that we don’t appear to endorse that standpoint.
Noted: The opening track ‘Cats’ of your new EP speaks of the enormity of Christian faith and the illegitimacy inherent within. What has been your personal experience with religion? Is it very prominent in North Carolina?
Caleb Cordes: Well, it’s important to distinguish between Christianity and the culture of Christianity as it presently exists in the west. While I’m not quite yet to the point where I think Christianity as a belief or ethical system is inherently illegitimate, nothing could be more problematic and off the mark than the monstrous culture of western Christianity—especially when considering the American southeast in isolation. The discovery of this distinction is the emblem of my personal experience and serves as the core driving factor of Profanity.
Displacement—i.e. leaving home—allowed me to examine this culture externally for the first time. It’s not that I was forced to inhabit this culture and uphold its precepts and then escaped to college—rather, most of my creative outlets and opportunities were found in church and thus translated to heavy involvement. Investigating too closely would threaten upsetting my ability to use these outlets, so in my naiveté I didn’t take very much to heart. Once separated from the haze of proximity, however, I began to realize that Christianity and the majority of American church culture are not only extremely different entities (albeit the latter masquerading as the former) but are often completely antithetical to one another.
This mutation of Christianity is overwhelmingly prominent in the South to the extent that it has become canon. Actual Christian ethical frameworks are rendered heresies. It’s exhausting. For a long time I thought I’d be able to put up with it, but lately I’m considering moving elsewhere for the sake of my own sanity.
Noted: With atheism and non-affiliation on the rise, what do you think is the next direction for your country? Will it move away from intolerance of minorities? Would you consider this an outdated stereotype of Americans?
Caleb Cordes: Oh god, that’s a long conversation. The factors that inform the generalizations I could make are pretty short-sighted. If I’m selfishly talking about my generation alone, I’d say that whatever direction we’re headed has the potential to be fueled by our tendency to be suspicious, and hopefully proactively suspicious at that. We don’t inherit the status quo so easily. A motive to deconstruct seems to be in our blood, and I’m not at all just considering those who subscribe to a punk ethic or are members of an academic community. It’s a general thing. The promises of modernity and consumerism have not only left us dissatisfied, but also deeply aware of their glaring failure to make our society any better. When we tear down their myths, we see that minorities of ethnicity, sexuality, and gender still bear the wait of systemic oppression.
The dogmas of yesterday are jarring and shameful in the wake of this realization, so we take pains to place distance between us and them—that’s where non-affiliation you mentioned stem from. I think that’s healthy. It’s a warranted anger. However, allowing disgust to overwhelm us so much that we quit the conversation altogether by becoming completely unaffiliated is to ignore the possibility that dissatisfaction can serve as a venue for change. We can’t be so fed up that we give up, because new ideological autocracies will take advantage of that vaccuum.
“Intolerance as a stereotype for Americans still fits the bill. Nevertheless, change is what I’m hoping for and modeling myself after.”
Deconstruction and abandonment are not synonyms. Deconstruction mines for value amidst rubble rather than outside of it. It’s a process of self-examination, and what’s cool about collective self-examination is that everyone gets a place at the table. We’re all trying to rid our distinct modes of living (our affiliations) of those qualities that might push the another mode of living into the margins. What you get when you strip those problematic qualities away is a plurality where no one’s voice is more important than another’s. That’s the end goal; harmony, not monotony. My hope is that we’d keep our affiliations, but we’d push tirelessly to pass them through the gauntlet of existing peacefully in the community of differing perspectives.
All said, I don’t see a manifestation of that attitude being the current majority. Intolerance as a stereotype for Americans still fits the bill. Nevertheless, change is what I’m hoping for and modeling myself after.
Noted: Linking back to your music, the themes on Profanity vary, from the pitfalls of religion to the uncertainty of adolescence and falling out of touch with one’s origins, though they all fall under the umbrella of disillusionment. Was this a conscious decision of yours, or just how your subjects panned out?
Caleb Cordes: I think it’s more of the latter. I may end up eating my words somewhere down the road, but I think that theme is going to be a constant for a long time to come, whether or not I’d like it to. A progressed version of the disillusionment motif seems to be materializing in our new material. Profanity was, in a strictly personal sense, about realizing there was something fishy about the Christian culture I inhabited. It encapsulated a time in my life in which I began to see my upbringing from the outside in. Now, of course, I’m several steps down that road. I haven’t quit the conversation, but I’ve certainly quit the choir. Much to the detriment of my innter tranquility, I’ve come to understand just how horribly fucking polar actual Christian ethics (radical emphasis upon communing with the other) and contemporary Christian culture (radical marginalization of the other) are. I don’t mean to write a Profanity sequel, but this discrepancy is something that eats away at me on an almost hourly basis.
“That’s why I have to write self-directed songs like “Drown Around”—I need to keep my chin up.”
Even though the theme continues to be disillusionment, it’s never stale—my obsession with this issue results in the variance you’re talking about because it permeates every part of my life. It’s almost impossible for me to write a song (at least a Sinai Vessel song) that doesn’t connect in some way to that general theme. I guess it’s a direct reflection of how I see things, which sucks because it can be a bummer. That’s why I have to write self-directed songs like “Drown Around”—I need to keep my chin up. That’s also probably why we’re likely the only band to ever receive the tag “emo” that hasn’t released a single song explicitly about a relationship, ha.
Noted: From your perspective, what is the music scene in North Carolina like? Is there anything that can be done to bolster it?
Caleb Cordes: Sinai Vessel has had a weird relationship with North Carolina simply because I didn’t really push the band until I had moved to Tennessee for college. Up until then, I had very little idea of how the DIY scene worked (or even that it existed) and therefore had almost no connection to the heart of the music scene in my home state.
Add to this displacement the fact that the ranks and locations of our members changed constantly over the first year we toured (2012-13) and what you get is a band that was essentially homeless. Luckily, we found a foster home in Tennessee and Georgia that supported us wholeheartedly, allowing us to cut our teeth while we worked to find a spot in the place we call home. We booked worthwhile NC shows as much as possible, often requiring that I bus over from university to play them. It was a frustrating process at times, but it was absolutely well spent. North Carolina has accepted us warmly since then. We get asked to play shows there more often than I ask to play them, and that’s the best feeling in the world. Circumstance had it that we had to earn it, and I’m glad we’ve something to show for the effort.
Because of this unique situation, I can only speak to what the NC music scene is like from what I’ve learned in this process. I hardly knew it existed at the beginning. A huge part of me wished I’d started getting involved so much earlier, because high school-aged kids (I started SV in 10th grade) are the force behind making the scene a more cohesive unit than I’ve ever experienced. They’re much more motivated in that sense than I ever was at that age, and it’s humbling to see. That kind of proactivity is exactly what bolsters the music community, and I’m stoked to see where it’s headed.
Noted: Is there anywhere in the world that you are desperate to travel to, whether to perform with the band or just to visit?
Caleb Cordes: I promise I’m not kissing up here, but I’m in love with the UK and I’d be elated to return for any reason. I live vicariously through every one of our friends’ bands that’s toured there and I admit to regularly fantasizing about doing the same. It doesn’t seem at all out of reach, and I’m hoping for the right opportunity. A desperation for prawn cocktail crisps and Digestives groans in my stomach daily. We’ve got to jump the pond. Help us out?
I am / we are also due for a visit to Australia on account of how many friends we’ve made over there. Thanks to Bandcamp I stumbled upon a lovely bunch of humans in a band called Epithets, and via the advent of social networking we’ve become pals with them and a host of those they call company. Our entire current aesthetic is borne of the artwork of our Australian friend Maddy Young, whom I’ve never met corporeally. The ability to write incredibly good music also seems to be something that dwells in the water there, so it’s another place certainly on my list.
Noted: Your dexterous lyrics hint at a passion for writing – do you have any creative goals outside of music?
Caleb Cordes: In some strange way I think that writing songs is my consolation in place of writing novels or screenplays. I don’t think I have the caliber of dedication or patience required to complete those kinds of things, so I do my best to take stabs at them in short-form—which, when paired with my other passion (music), becomes the craft of songwriting. That intermingling also has the effect of barring my writing from being the sole recipient of my attention—something that often results in me being self-critical to the point of scrapping the project. If I sing something enough, it feels uncomfortable to change it. I can devote myself to a phrase by embedding it in my muscle memory. I don’t know that I’d be able to do that with any other medium, and I respect the hell out of anyone that does.
I do love writing, though. I just write too much when I set to it. That’s why it’s taken since May to finish this interview. [Thanks for your patience.]