Some Incredible Sadness and Some Loneliness – An Interview with Open Mike Eagle & Serengeti (Cavanaugh)

Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti discuss their new album, rap things, comedy things, painful things, & more.
By    December 6, 2015

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The Chicago rap renaissance of the last few years has bred a wealth of worthwhile music and intense interest in the city’s artists. Yet two of the best rappers raised there are often left out of the conversation: Open Mike Eagle (Mike Eagle) and Serengeti (David Cohn). To be fair, the omission probably isn’t intentional, and there are several reasons for such an oversight. Mike moved to L.A. indefinitely years ago. Dave briefly moved to L.A. And they’ve both rapped as long as many of the recently ascendent Chicago rappers have been alive. 

Though friends since Southern Illinois University, Mike and Dave have only worked together sparingly. Now, after over a decade apart, they’ve formed Cavanaugh. The duo’s first album, Time & Materials, was released late last month. Produced entirely by Mike, it’s loosely framed around the concept of a class-divided apartment complex where Mike and Dave serve as disgruntled and inebriated handymen.

But you needn’t know that to listen and enjoy the album. The rapping is stream-of-consciousness and more difficult to parse than some of their solo work, but their shared wit and insight are always accessible. And though the voices are many,  the themes are constant: debts of all kind, love lost and wrestled with, depression, alienation, and isolation. Think of it as art rap’s Mrs. Dalloway,  but funnier. Or something. Sometimes parody is the best means of self-preservation.

Last month, I went to Mike’s apartment a few days before Thanksgiving. He called Dave and we talked about their album, their artistic processes, alter-egos, and many things. Those things are below. Should you like their music and what they have to say, Cavanaugh will be performing at the Bootleg Theatre in L.A. this Thursday, December 10th. More west coast tour dates are at the end. — Max Bell

You guys went to Southern Illinois University together. Do either of you remember the day you met?


Mike: Did you used to hang around Deep 6 a lot, Dave?

Dave: Yeah.

Mike: Deep 6 was this crew on campus. A lot of them were people that went to my high school but graduated a couple years ahead of me. They were like the rap guys I looked up to on campus. I’m pretty sure I met Dave when I was with them one day. But that’s as much as I remember.


Was your friendship immediate?


Mike: I think I was more of a fan of Dave at first. He was one of the first dudes around there that was really doing shows in the area. I was just a freestyle dude, I was in awe of homies making songs. He had this song called “The Dirtiest Man Alive” that I thought was the greatest thing ever. I looked at him like a peer because we both rapped, but I looked at him as someone who was way ahead of me in terms of having a career.

Dave: You were actually at the very first show I ever did in Carbondale. I remember I was like, “Oh, shit. I wish fella wasn’t here.”

Mike: I had no idea that was your first show. The whole crowd was so with you.


Dave, what music were you recording at the time?


Dave: I did one thing when I was down there. I was working on this other project—Gasoline Rainbows. In the interim I did Dirty Flamingo and a few other ones. It’s a little murky.


What is the most embarrassing thing you remember about one another from that time?


Mike: I don’t remember anything embarrassing, really. I used consume too many adult beverages and try to breakdance at the spot where all the shows were. I’m pretty sure I did that at Dave’s shows, too. I used to get sick. That’s about it for me.

Dave: I got nothing, Max. I know what you’re trying to do, and I got nothing. You’re trying to divide us and we just started. You’re not going to do this.


Do you regret anything that was part of your wardrobe?


Mike: My whole wardrobe was a mess up until like last week. I got about eleven or twelve years of regrets from then until now.

Dave: Yeah. Again…


Without saying the word “me” or the name “Hannibal,”who is your favorite SIU alumnus?


Mike: Didn’t Bob Odenkirk go to SIU? I’m going to claim him. He seems cool.

Dave: I’m going to claim my guy Frohawk Two Feathers.

Mike: That’s a good call. [He’s] a world renowned visual artist and is also a frequent rap collaborator with Dave.

Dave: In second I would say Jenny McCarthy. I think she went to SIU. And that fellow from NYPD Blue, Dennis Franz.


Was college “worth it”? 


Mike:  I’m glad I finished and I got a degree. I had some very formative experiences down there. So I can’t say that if I hadn’t gone to college I would’ve done something else productive during that time. I think it worked out pretty cool for me

Dave: What was the question? I was rolling garbage cans out.


Was college “worth it?”


Dave: It was disappointing for me. It was very isolating. I thought it was going to be like Degrassi Junior High, just this mixture of people. In my experience, it was even more segregated than Chicago was. I thought it wasn’t going to be like that at all. It made me feel lonely, isolated, [and] weak.

Mike: I wrote a song about that recently. I didn’t even realize he’d had that same experience. Well, I wrote a song that touched on that. That was my first experience being surrounded by Caucasian folks and [seeing] how they would just ignore you. There were like 20,000 students and 2,000 black ones. We were surrounded. There was this psychological segregation that was very apparent there.

Dave: Yeah. I knew some people who went down there that weren’t too tough on the gang stuff, and they’d get down there and all of the sudden they would want to rep that shit really hard. It just crushed me. I was like, “Come on. We’re so far away.” But, hey, it’s none of my business.


When you graduated, how did you stay in touch? How often were you in touch?


Mike: I can’t remember the first time I saw Dave after I left college. It had to be here in L.A. sometime. But the basis of it is that we picked the same kind of career, even though we went in different paths with different labels or whatever. We started to run into each other like coworkers. It’s like the same way you end up meeting all the other indie dudes. You guys are all in the same places. You know where I think it was, it was SXSW. I think that was the first time we hung out after college. That’s the kind of place that you would see people who do this.

Dave: Yeah, I remember that. I do.


What prevented you guys from working together more often before this? Was it the distance?


Mike: It was nothing, really. I think we were just doing our things, making records and working with who we would grow to work with. We just hadn’t set a real intention to make something yet. As soon as we said we were going to make something, we got together and made it.

Dave: And that’s Cavanaugh , Max.


If you had to cover one song from the other person’s catalog, what would it be? 


Mike: Today, mine from Dave would be “No Beginners.” That’s the one I’ve been listening to a lot lately.

Dave: You’d do the Kenny voice and everything, Michael?

Mike: Of course I would. I do it any way. If I start hanging around you too long I start doing it any way. It’s very contagious.

Dave For me it would be “Dark Comedy Late Show.” I remember first hearing that. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Aw geez.” So that one.


You both have a clear appreciation of and passion for comedy. Who are your favorite comedians? Again, both of you and Hannibal are disqualified?


Mike: Mitch Hedberg was a big favorite of mine. Paul F. Tompkins is a huge favorite of mine. I like Dave Attell a lot. Richard Pryor is the GOAT forever. I like a lot of comics.

Dave: I always loved—his whole character was it for me—Bill Murray. I know that’s sort of cliché, but you asked me. He’s just a funny guy.


Do you ever make yourself laugh when you write? Do you have a good sense of what’s funny or do you find out after you hear a song recorded?


Dave: I get a chuckle out of it because there will be an inside joke for myself. I don’t know if anybody will get this joke, but it’s a joke for me. So, yes, I laugh.

Mike: I probably write with a half-smile all the time anyway. My thing about laughing at my own stuff is when I hear it back recorded it will really make me laugh, [especially] if I feel I executed a joke how I wanted to.


How thin is the line between comedy and drama is in your work?


Mike: I don’t do anything seriously at all. Anything that I do is meant to entertain me. It’s just that I’m entertained by very dark things. Very little, if any of it, is serious in my world. It’s all a big sad joke.

Dave: Me too. It all comes from intense pain. It’s just putting a funny spin on it.


When do you decide that something is too personal for a rap song?


Dave: I always mess that up. I’m trying to work on that one. That’s in the process.

Mike: I have a pretty weird line, but I don’t know if I can even describe it. I make a lot of allusions to things that I won’t outright say, but I don’t think the line for what I will or won’t say is very consistent at all.


How often do you include things that you regret? Do you choose not to perform those songs?


Mike: That’s happened. I’ve definitely written a lot of stuff that I haven’t put out because at some point it strikes me that it’s too dark. I regret some songs I put out, but not because they’re personal. I just don’t think they’re good. Something that misfired in the recording or something like that, but very rarely because of the subject matter.

Dave: There are a lot of songs that I don’t want to perform live because I don’t want to say the shit. There’s a lot of them. But with all the new stuff coming out, I think I’m getting better at that. Starting with the Cavanaugh.


Have either of you attempted to write fiction?


Mike: I’ve never written anything long form, but I’ll do these things that feel like a really long lie as realistically as possible. I’ve done that a few times on the Internet. I’ll just write a long thing that’s made up but it’s super extensive. I would love to do more things like that. I just find it a little intimidating.

Dave: I’ve dabbled in some of that stuff. I’ve done some scripts and stuff like that. I want to do one with Mike. It’s a goal. I’ve tried it before and I want to try it again with Mike.


Who are some of your favorite fiction writers?


Mike: I like Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Anton Wilson, and Tom Robbins. Those are like my top three fiction writers.

Dave: The most I’ve read is Vonnegut and Hemingway. And also Bukowski. I went on a kick and read like six of his books.


What do you think is the most attractive aspect of professional wrestling?


Mike: To me, it is the very strange suspension of disbelief that comes along with it. It’s something that everyone knows has a predetermined outcome but they can fill 30,000 seat arenas with it. I think that’s amazing, the “worked shoot” aspect of it.

Dave: For me, I watched wrestling as a kid. Then I went on a long hiatus. What I love about it now is getting the recaps from Mike, just having him explain to me what’s going on and all of these little catch phrases and stuff. It’s fascinating that he’s so into it. I love to hear it from him. I can live through him explaining it to me. It feels like a cheat sheet.

Mike: Dave is really into the boxing and MMA. I can’t really get into it because there’s not enough pageantry and steel chairs. I need managers smoking cigars.


Rap is a genre that encourages and invites alter egos. Dave, you have several. Mike, you might have more than we know about. Do you think everyone should have an alter ego?


Mike: No. I don’t think everybody should, but I think that if people do then they should be aware of it. I feel like that people have certain things they switch on and off and they’re not even truly aware of it. But I don’t think everyone should have one in life. That sounds really confusing.


What is the biggest impetus for creating an alter ego?


Dave: Some incredible sadness and some loneliness. And then just delve into it. There you go. Boom. Be a sourpuss, be a sad sack, and you’re well on your way to creating your first alter-ego.


Do either of you listen to your old material? How often?


Mike: I listen to my material obsessively while I’m making it and right before it comes out. If it takes me two years to make a record, I’m listening to it constantly everyday for that entire period. Then when it comes out I just stop. If I do hear it again it’s because I was with somebody and they put it on. I never put it on myself after that.

Dave: Same way for me.


When did you decide to form Cavanaugh?


Mike: It was in the spring, wasn’t it?

Dave: It was last spring and I was out in L.A. We went over to your house, then we talked, and there it was. I was at the Custom Hotel. Good times. We came up with the setting for our album and decided to set people in there.


There’s a realty company not far from where Mike lives called Cavanaugh. There’s also a bar called Cavanaugh’s in Chicago. What was the genesis of the name?


Mike: It came from Dave’s head. Since we decided that was the name [we’ve learned] that there are a couple terrible rock bands named Cavanaugh. It’s a word that is around more than I ever thought. The impetus for us using it came from a locale, a verbal painting that Dave made one day.

Dave: That was fun. Good times.


Do you think that either of you could actually work as a handy man?


Mike: I couldn’t work as a handy man, but I’ve worked on building crews. I couldn’t fix anything, but I can clean stuff really well.

Dave: I worked as a sort of handy man before. It was my last job. I was bad. They’d ask me to do stuff and I’d be like, “Well what is that exactly?” “It’s a handsaw.” “Oh, okay.”


What’s the main export of this fictional place, Detroit, Florida?


Mike: American style, non-impressive, makes-you-pee-a-lot beer.

Dave: Natty Ice.


How heavily should the “concept” inform people’s listening experience?


Mike: Not at all. It’s a rap record. Just listen to it. Listen to it like rap songs. It’s not a musical. It’s a way to understand how we’re interacting or not interacting. It’s not a literal thing that every lyric is wrapped around.

Dave: What you could say is that it’s what they were feeling when they were working together. They might have heard something or heard somebody say something.


Dave, did Mike send you any beats that you thought were bad?


Dave: No. This was done direct. There was no e-mailing back and forth tracks. It was all right there. We all were in the same room.

Mike: In this very room that Max and I are sitting in. A lot of writing got done here, and all of the recording got done in the closet over there.

Dave: For me, it was very important that I do a project like that. I’m not really into the e-mail gimmick anymore. I like the gimmick of us in a room.


Do you prefer to record alone?


Mike: I recorded him and myself for this project. I don’t like going to studios. I guess the answer is yes for me.

Dave: I never record myself. I don’t have a setup to record myself. I’ve been in this collaborative mode. Anytime I do a project I go somewhere and do it in like two weeks at somebody’s studio.


How long did you spend recording Cavanaugh?


Mike: I think if you put it all together it was probably like six days. It wasn’t very long.

Dave: I think we talked for the first day and then we just jumped right into it. That was once we figured out Mike had all the beats. We were trying to figure out the beat situation at first, and then Mike started playing his beats. It was like, “Wait, wait, wait—you gotta be crazy. The answer has always been right here.”

Mike: It’s like a rom-com gimmick.


Some of the verses on this record are a little more cryptic than on your respective solo records. Was that intentional?


Dave: That has to do with the concept.

Mike: I would say that how I engaged the concept was that I put little forethought into anything. I was very much writing in the moment and not censoring myself, kind of accessing a real subliminal place compared to where I usually come from. I would imagine that if people are used everything I’m saying making some kind of sense from bar one to bar sixteen, this is definitely going to be more cryptic compared to that. But it’s not cryptic on purpose. It’s just more free association for me.

Dave: It was all just energy. A lot of just boom, boom. “We got this? Okay. Let’s move on.” [But] Mike fussed over the production, and he moved some stuff around too.

Mike: Sometimes our approach was that we would put a beat on and go back and forth recording parts to it so then later on we could go back and rearrange parts and change the structure.


Would you say that you discussed what you were going for with each song, or did you intuitively know what you wanted to do together?


Dave: It was great to work with Mike because it was like, “Alright. I trust him.” We waited so long to do this and it came together nice. Good times. I keep saying that because I think about it fondly.


How do you think you’ll handle being around one another for an extended period of time while on the road?


Mike: We’re going to have to drink less.

Dave: Yeah.

Mike: We’re going to have to make a goal to remember every night. That’s going to be the goal. I have to put down the whiskey after two or three. I have to tell myself that I’ve had enough whiskeys and ginger beers.

Dave: It could work for one night—the San Fran night was great—but San Jose I woke up the next day and I was like, “What happened?” That’s a terrible feeling. Aw geez.


Are there any plans to do another album?


Mike: So many plans. We’re going to do lots of stuff, but we’re not going to say the stuff we’re going to do. We’re just going to do it. Then you will see how much forethought we put into the next get down.

Dave: I’m excited for that.


Dave, do you have any solo records on the horizon?


Dave: I got a new one with me and Yoni Wolf that’s coming out.


How much did the character of Pinky in Friday affect your life?


Dave: I don’t know. I wasn’t even thinking about Friday.


I thought that’s whom you were alluding to on the album.


Dave: Well, if that works better…sure.


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