A Q&A with Mickey Coviello of Cabinet
By Geoff Gehman
Todd Kopec, the fiddler in Cabinet, has compared performing with his band mates to painting a large mural on the side of a building. Kopec and company basically invite listeners to join their Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn party by offering live recordings, original songs about universal experiences and a vibe of old soul. They try to make music what music should be: creative, communal, charitable.
Cabinet returns Dec. 14 to the Mauch Chunk Opera House, an old-soul center for the northeastern Pennsylvania ensemble and its fans. The six musicians will play tracks from their latest CD, “Leap” (Ropadope), recorded over four days in a studio with real live spectators. Expect nimble instrumentals, robust vocals and the sort of groovy grooves that could make you spill beer over your overalls, and not even notice or care.
The beer-on-overalls combo comes from singer-guitarist Mickey Coviello, who formed Cabinet six years ago with lead singer-mandolinist J.P. Biondo, his longtime friend and song-writing partner. Below, in excerpts from a phone interview from his home in Moscow, Coviello discusses the joys of jumping into a swimming hole, a father carrying his kids in a bucket and leading a Snoop Dog song to bluegrass.
Q: The name of the new record, “Leap,” implies some sort of progress, some kind of big jump. During the recording did you make any large artistic leaps?
A: I think we did, although maybe not on purpose. It was our second time in the studio working on an album, which meant we were a little more comfortable, a little more free, in trying some new things musically. We’ve been playing a lot onstage since the last [studio] album more than four years ago and we’ve learned to convert what we do live in a more controlled environment. For one thing, the soloists shine a lot more because we’ve been playing a lot more.
Q: You cut “Leap” in front of a live audience, something most bands avoid because it’s a bit too public, a bit too naked. What makes you guys so brave?
A: Most people don’t get to experience the magic being made in the studio. Bill [Orner], our manager, had the idea to give fans a nice little sneak peek into the recording process, to give something back to them. Having roughly 20 people there every day helped us to play on the top of our game, to get the best out of us. We had to get it right pretty much right away; it wasn’t like we had all day and 20 million takes of one vocal track. Plus, we’re super comfortable playing for a crowd
Q: How about a song on “Leap” that went through a lot of testing until it crystallized?
A: “Gather All Ye.” When we first started playing it, it had a kind of Latin groove. When we played it live, people didn’t like it. They would be standing there with their mouths open as if to say: “What’s going on?” So we decided to record it in the studio with just me on guitar and J.P. [Biondo] singing. It’s more stripped down and pretty.
Q: Another song title that pops out on the new record is “Carry Me in a Bucket.” Who carried the bucket and who was carried?
A: J.P. wrote that about his childhood, when his dad used to carry him and his sisters around in a bucket. I guess it was a five- or 10-gallon bucket. His dad is real strong.
Q: You’ve described “Tower” as your favorite Cabinet song, that it “sways like a leaf blowing through the air.” Is it a favorite partly because it’s tied to your memory of a favorite site and summer ritual?
A: I’d say so. J.P. wrote “Tower” about a spot we used to go to in high school. We’d climb up a cliff to this tower-like structure and jump off into the water, into what was supposed to be a reservoir that never really got developed. We weren’t supposed to be there but it was a popular place to hang out. A lot of people hear “Tower” and come up to us and ask: “Oh, is this song about this place?” and then they name a place we don’t know. I guess the song is pretty relatable; I guess a lot of people have a place to jump off into water.
Q: Do you still perform without a set list; do you still pretty much fly by the seat of your pants?
A: We did perform without a set list, but the past couple of years we’ve been pretty adamant about performing with one. That way, you can change tunings and decide where you’re going to put the capo without looking at each other and wondering: Okay, what are we going to play now? It’s a lot less hectic.
Q: I’m always curious about how bands customize set lists to settings, why they play certain songs in certain places. Is there something you only perform, for example, in the Abbey, the Harrisburg brewery-bar that used to be an airplane-parts factory?
A: In the Abbey we’d be more likely to play “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dog. We give it a bluegrass version; I know–it’s hilarious [laughs]. We used to play it a lot more than we do now. But if someone shouted it out in the Abbey, we just might play it.
Q: You’re quite a democratic ensemble. You’ve made live recordings and you’ve offered a CD of covers as a holiday gift. How does democracy work in the group? How do you parcel out roles? Who drives the van?
A: It’s pretty basic. Somebody presents a song, written or half written or just an idea. We usually jam on it or figure out an arrangement that works for everybody. Then we divvy up who takes a solo and how many times we perform the chorus. It’s nice to have six minds working at the same time, so no one feels left out. Although sometimes it’s frustrating because your idea is left out of the mix.
Pappy [Biondo, J.P.’s cousin], our banjo player, is usually driving the bus when we’re onstage. He gives the cues to take solos; he usually writes the set list. When there was no set list he was the one calling the songs.
Q: Pappy also has the band’s best first name.
A: And it fits him well. He’s very laid back about a lot of things; he’s got this old soul about him.
Q: Have you had a recent discovery that has made being a professional musician clearer and easier?
A: The past four or five years I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. It’s a hectic lifestyle, being on the road so much, spending a lot of time with your band mates. It’s like any relationship: you learn how to navigate it and bite your tongue to keep the peace. So what I’ve learned is to not take things so seriously. I take the music seriously and not anything else because the music really is what we’re all here for, the main purpose.
Q: Cabinet has played the last two editions of South by Southwest, the annual music-industry extravaganza to end all extravaganzas. Have you had any breakthroughs down in Austin?
A: The first year we played down there we were just feeling it out. The second year we had a lot more crowd response. We even sold out a showcase. It made us think: Wow, we’re not in the Northeast anymore and there’s a room of people getting down with us. It’s a festival for music lovers and it’s opened me up to a lot of bands I had never heard before. And it’s nice to be in a beautiful city like Austin, which they close down for a week and half and dedicate to music.
Ever since we started we never really had a goal. In my mind as long as things keep getting better, we’re on the right track. I guess South by Southwest shows we’re on the right track.
Q: What was a highlight of playing the Peach Music Festival at Montage Mountain with the Allman Brothers Band and Zac Brown?
A: That was amazing, I can’t even tell you. Growing up, I went to see a bunch of shows at Montage on the big stage and I never thought I’d grow up to play on that big stage. It was also humbling. Playing on the same stage as the Allman Brothers and Zac Brown, it just blew me. I saw [Allman guitarist] Warren Haynes eating dinner a couple of tables away and it was like: How did I get here?
Q: What’s on your bucket list of goals for improving yourself as a musician?
A: If I were to record a solo album, or several solo albums, it would help me musically, personally and universally. I’d love to do a bluegrass string album; I’d love to do a rock ’n’ roll album with experimental sounds. I want to experiment with music and just create as much as possible and even practice guitar more. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time right now. I’ve been getting more into photography and videography, shooting footage of the band. That’s taking up a lot of my time and mind power and money. It’s another creative outlet that’s powerful—and distracting.
Q: The name of your record company, Ropeadope, refers to Muhammad Ali’s favorite defensive tactic, the one that allowed him to beat George Foreman when everyone thought Foreman would annihilate him. Do you have any rope-a-dopes, any tactics that get you through an off night?
A: Rhythmically, I’m always good, but when I take a solo sometimes I’m off. On those nights when Pappy nods at me to take a solo, I’ll shake my head “No” and either he or Todd [Kopec] will take the solo. I do it for the good of the band; I take one for the team [laughs].
Q: Todd has envisioned you guys making music as if you’re all painting a large mural on the side of a building. Does his statement sound familiar to you, or do you have your own favorite bumper-sticker statement?
A: That’s a pretty good analogy. Obviously, when we play live, we’re all immersed in this experience and we’re all exchanging energy and thoughts without having to speak them. There’s no feeling in the world like playing onstage and communicating with not only band members but audience members as well, in a way you’d think is impossible. It’s pretty addictive.
Mickey Coviello: The Scoop
(1) First tune he couldn’t forget: “Eruption,” guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s volcanic instrumental. “I heard that tone, and I was hooked. That was probably the reason I began playing guitar.”
(2) He invented the name Cabinet just before he and band co-founder J.P. Biondo played a best-of open-mike session on live radio. “It came out of nowhere and it just stuck.”
(3) He and his band mates offered the 2011 CD “This Is Cabinet—Covers” as a free holiday gift.
(4) He and his musical comrades recorded the 2012 CD “Eleven” at the Abbey Bar, a Harrisburg brewery that used to be an airplane-parts factory.
(5) Cabinet’s latest record, “Leap,” contains a reworked version of “Eleanor,” one of the first songs he wrote with Biondo, his friend since middle school.
(6) He’s called “Shifty Shaft/Treesap” the kind of two-tune combo that “demands you kick up your heels while spilling beer on your overalls.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. While he’s never worn overalls, he can imagine spilling beer over them while bopping to a bluegrass raveup. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.