The Awkward Hit-Makers

Berkeley's the Cataracs have built their career by smartly writing dumb music.

It’s 11 a.m. on a Sunday in one of those oppressively sunlit North Berkeley cafes, and Niles Hollowell-Dhar (aka Cyrano, half of the Berkeley electro-pop duo the Cataracs) is hiding behind saucer-sized aviators, white-knuckling a cup of coffee and moving with all the torpor of a twenty-year-old who stayed out a little too late the night before. His other half, David Singer-Vine (“Campa”), is slightly better off than his bandmate at the moment, but there’s still something manifestly, almost purposefully, unpolished about these two: Their posture is slumped, their speech slow and peppered with Bay Areaisms, their clothes rumpled.

But get the two of them talking and it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to the Cataracs than their image projects. They’re animated and articulate, chatting away about their music (synthed-out pop with sugary hooks and catchy beats); their story (which began when they were freshmen at Berkeley High) and their future (which looks bright, as they’ve just inked a deal with Universal Republic). Indeed, their white-teed Bay Boy slacker aesthetic and unabashedly dumbed-down sound conceal a sophisticated understanding of the industry— a sense of discipline and preternatural business-savvy that just may bring these two mainstream success.

“Our music never catered to an elitist audience, and that’s important to me,” Hollowell-Dhar said. “That’s what people want — these dumb, mindless records where you go to the club and you bob your head and you dance. It’s a time in music where people just really want something fun. They want to not have to think that much. They want …”

He stops himself mid-sentence. “Well, most of our fans are like fifteen years old, so I don’t think they think about this as much as we do.”

Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone thinks about this stuff as much as they do. There’s a studied, left-brained pragmatism to their approach: Perhaps because they don’t have classical backgrounds or industry connections, they’ve spent years examining and analyzing what it takes to make a hit and applying this knowledge to every new track. Take, for example, Hollowell-Dhar’s explanation of what went into their latest single, “Club Love”: “We had the spicy AutoTune, the minimal beats, the slick production,” he said. “We really needed a club banger, so we basically pulled out all the tricks.” They’re constantly studying, thinking, finding what works and what doesn’t and learning how to be better.

In other words, they’re very smart about making dumb music.

It’s this tension — between happy-go-lucky insouciance and hardboiled ambition, between the unabashedly dumbed-down music and its deceptively smart artists — that seems, more than anything, to define the Cataracs. There’s an intriguing, endearing complexity to these two, as though they’re still working through their identities as individuals and as artists, and haven’t quite ironed out all the contradictions yet. They’ll churn out one club banger after another, but they claim to hate clubs (Singer-Vine will go as far as to call club culture “the de-evolution of the human race.”)

They’ll earnestly extol the virtues of a sticky blunt and a Gordo’s burrito one minute, then quote Machiavelli in all seriousness the next. They’ll happily act the part of slick pop stars in their videos, but in person, they’re polite and insist they don’t go out much: “I mean, we do like clubs, but I’m ballin’ on a budget,” Singer-Vine said, before Hollowell-Dhar added that he usually feels “extremely awkward” at clubs. They’ll happily play the part of a laid-back twentysomething slacker while logging serious hours in the studio.

Their music is simple, but only because it’s been carefully designed to be. Their name itself is a perfect example, as even they don’t seem to be able to tell whether it’s a hollow, just-for-the-hell-of-it, deliberate misspelling, or if it’s symbolic of some deeper meaning. Two years ago, they told the Chronicle that “Cataracs,” sans T, was a nod to “a different way of seeing things,” but now, back in Berkeley, coffee long drunk, they laugh when asked if the name is intended to be a metaphor for anything. “No, no,” Singer-Vine says. “I think at some point, we just said, ‘Fuck the T.'”

Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine were born and raised in Berkeley, and attended Berkeley High School, where they met as freshmen in 2002. By their own admission, they were fairly unexceptional students. “I think I was pretty bright but I had a lot of trouble focusing and it was always about figuring out a way to fake it,” Hollowell-Dhar said. “I was kind of able to wing it a lot of the time.” He made a name for himself on campus by styling himself as something of a rhetorical foil to Berkeley’s ultra-liberalism. He raised rabble in class discussions and penned a column for the Berkeley High Jacket titled “The Capitalist Manifesto.” The whole shtick, he now admits, had nothing to do with his own political ideology — which is as liberal as any good Berkeleyan’s is — and everything to do with wanting to play provocateur, to “mess with Berkeley people.”

Singer-Vine dropped out at sixteen, though he later went on to get his GED. He worked for a while at Andronico’s bagging groceries before getting fired for stealing sandwiches. (Hollowell-Dhar cracks up at the thought of his bandmate holding down a nine-to-five: “It’s hard to think of David going more than like 45 minutes without looking at a laptop.”)

Their relationship started as a half-serious rap rivalry but quickly evolved into friendship and, shortly thereafter, collaboration, as they recorded their first tracks in Hollowell-Dhar’s closet. They connected with the Pack, a group composed of students from Berkeley and Alameda high schools who were experiencing modest success at the time, and in 2005, the two groups collaborated on “Blueberry Afghani” — a fairly standard-issue hyphy joint with looped vocals, ringing synths, and a Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks compressed chorus extolling the virtues of a particularly delicious strain of weed. They put the track on MySpace and didn’t think much of it until Wild 94.9 DJ J. Espinosa contacted them saying he’d like to play the song on his show. This was the Cataracs’ first taste of local success, and it was enough to keep them working at it.

In the spring of 2006, the Cataracs finished Technohop Vol. 1, a twenty-track mixtape of largely unmemorable pop-inflected hyphy anthems. The boys and their friends ended up selling some 2,000 copies out of car trunks and at parties. That August, after “Vans,” the Pack’s infectious ode to the eponymous sneakers, became a bona fide hit up and down the West Coast, “Blueberry Afghani” picked up a second wind and was chosen as KMEL’s “Download of the Week.”

The boys then went off to college — Singer-Vine to Columbia College in Chicago and Hollowell-Dhar to SF State. But they kept making tracks while home on breaks and recorded essentially nonstop during winter holidays. In April 2007, they put out Technohop Vol. 2. The lead single, “Casanova,” recorded over 350 spins on stations in the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. That summer, they met Berkeley High alums Ben Willis and Josh Andriano, who’d recently started a record label called Indie-Pop and asked to manage the Cataracs. Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine agreed and decided to take a year off from school to pursue music in earnest.

They spent that year living at home, recording and working — hard. “The one thing we benefitted from most during that time was locking ourselves in a room for a few hours a day,” Singer-Vine said. “Eventually, [the music] got good. It wasn’t always good.” Indeed, talk to anyone close to the Cataracs and they’ll emphasize how tirelessly they work, both then and now. As Singer-Vine’s mother Ellen recalls, “He worked harder on this than he’d worked on anything else in his life.” The Cataracs themselves also ascribe their relative longevity, and any success they’re currently experiencing, to this work ethic. “I think a lot of younger artists sort of fell off because maybe they weren’t seeing results they would’ve liked straight off,” Hollowell-Dhar said. “For us, it was all about the three Ps: persistence, patience and perseverance,” said Singer-Vine.

But despite the modest success of “Blueberry,” nothing was certain yet. “We always said, if stuff didn’t pick up we’d go back to college,” recalled Hollowell-Dhar.

And then in the spring of 2008, it did. In March, they released “Baby Baby (The Lover’s Anthem),” a sticky, synth-heavy pop jam that caught fire with fans and ultimately rose to the number-two spot on Wild 94.9’s nightly countdown. They were steadily amassing a loyal base of followers and began regularly selling out local venues like La Peña and the Rickshaw Stop. They were also getting attention from major labels, including Mercury and Island Def Jam, but Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine, on Andriano and Willis’s advice, decided to hold off in order to work on developing their base and finessing their sound.

In the following few months everything began to crystallize, commercially and creatively, for the duo. “That summer, the summer of ’08, was just like one big clusterfuck of shows,” said Hollowell-Dhar. “That’s when we really started hitting all the little venues around the bay, playing all these sold-out shows.” They were the subject of a glowing front-page profile in the Chronicle‘s Datebook section and recorded a video with Taj, an Oakland-based director who’s worked with Ne-Yo and Rihanna.

With sales from concerts and iTunes, the Cataracs started seeing some money for the first time. “It’s a really big step when you start making money,” said Hollowell-Dhar. “Finally, it seemed kind of defensible that I would be doing music for a living.” College was put on hold indefinitely.

Coinciding with their sudden surge in popularity was the group’s deliberate move away from the hyphy-inflected sound that gave them their first minor hit. This, more than anything, seems to have been responsible for current success.

Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine came of age creatively at the height of hyphy, that fleeting year or so when it really did seem like E-40 and his ilk were poised to change the face of music and put the Bay Area on the map. “When we started making music [hyphy] was all you could make,” said Hollowell-Dhar. Indeed, most of their early tracks bear the indelible mark of the Mac Dre era. But they were always much more pop-oriented than that, and around the spring of 2007 began making songs that diverged from the genre. Even their latest track, a remix of this fall’s “Club Love” featuring the hyphy ambassador himself, E-40, bears only the faintest imprint of the genre, in the form of 40’s trademark burble. But there’s none of the bass heaviness or scattered drumbeats of hyphy; this is pure electro-pop.

The Cataracs attribute much of their success, in fact, to their move away from the almost myopic regionalism that they believe has stunted the scene for too long. “All of a sudden we set ourselves apart, and we weren’t making hyphy like everyone else,” said Hollowell-Dhar. “And that’s when we broke into the scene and made a name for ourselves. I don’t think we would’ve been able to survive if we had stayed making that kind of music.”

Singer-Vine agrees: “A lot of people in the Bay are stuck trying to put the Bay on the map. But people should be focused on making great records, and through that, inadvertently putting the Bay Area on the map. Because nobody cares about the Bay Area in the major labels. Repping your hometown doesn’t matter anymore. People just want to hear great records.”

It’s a surprisingly canny statement, especially coming from someone who’s known for lyrics like Enough with the blah blah/you know I really/wanna see your na nas/girl get silly/So I told her bend over/I’ma do the Facebook and poke ya. But these guys are nothing if not surprisingly insightful about what people want to hear. And now that hyphy’s been proclaimed dead by everyone from critics to fans to artists themselves, it’s looking like the Cataracs were substantially ahead of the curve.

“Niles and David and I knew for awhile there was a real market for this kind of music,” Willis said. “These kids aren’t stupid — they’re super-smart. And now everyone’s trying to catch up.”

The Cataracs embrace an unabashedly poppy sound on their most recent album, Songs We Sung in Showers: all slick, synthetic, AutoTuned effervescence, the kind of undeniably catchy, radio-ready stuff that’ll linger in your ears for days. It’s a formula that’s been proven to work, and Top 40 is what the Cataracs seem to be banking on. Whether it’ll work is anyone’s gamble, but right now they’re making a solid living and have plans to tour California and then the country, after which they’ll head to Europe. Their label is aggressively pushing “Club Love,” they say. “We’re probably being given the biggest opportunity a group from Berkeley has gotten in a long time,” Hollowell-Dhar said, eyes widening behind his aviators.

And despite any knocks they might get for following the formula, Singer-Vine insists that he and Hollowell-Dhar are “at peace with who we are and what we’re doing. There’s a satisfaction that we get from making a song that sounds good to us.”

“I have a lot of fun making dumb music,” Hollowell-Dhar added.

Moreover, he argues, there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want.

“The word ‘pop’ is so pejorative,” Hollowell-Dhar added. “But I kind of appreciate the simplicity of it. Yeah, it’s dumbed down, like ‘she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but it’s beautiful. If you take it for what it is, it’s simple, but it was really effective.”


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