Caleb Groh: The Best of What's Next

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The first time I met Caleb Groh we were in a college town garage. The miniscule space had been converted in the hopes of becoming an idyllic place for live music, which essentially meant placing a piano in the corner in lieu of the usual garage menagerie. Groh was supporting his phenomenal 2012 record, Bottomless Coffee, an album I obsessed over and had listened through near a hundred times in a matter of weeks.

Despite my lofty anticipation, Groh’s set is not what I remember about that night, but the words we shared after. I am, by rule, not one to approach an artist post-show, hiding behind thin excuses of “they don’t want to be bothered” or “the line is too long.” That brisk, late October Michigan evening I made an exception, needing to meet the mind behind the record that had taken over my life. Anyone who’s spoken to musicians a number of times knows the conversations often proceed in similar fashion. Sometimes, though, you run into a genuine surprise.

When I told Groh that I loved Bottomless Coffee, was enamored with it, I expected the usual feigned gratitude that comes not from core insincerity, but an inability to appear genuine after hearing praise too often. Instead, he offered disbelief and an astonishing amount of honesty and appreciation. Years later, coming off the release of Hot Pop, a four-song EP that radically alters the Caleb Groh sound, the musician’s driving force is still unparalleled honesty.

Three years may not seem like a long time, but in the modern music industry it can feel an eternity. After releasing Bottomless Coffee, Groh entered a hibernation.

“I was planning on taking some time, that was when I moved to Nashville and just found my own musical voice,” he says. “I actually wasn’t going to record anything for longer [after Bottomless Coffee], but I recorded an album maybe a year and a half ago and was going to release it right away, but I’m trying to be wiser about that.”

He spent a few months sitting on the forthcoming Ocelot when the musical itch began anew. In his spare time, Groh practiced needle-felting, a process that involves taking loose fibers (usually wool or polyester) and entwining them with various needle tools. The results are impossibly adorable faux-taxidermy animals and plants, which he sells under the name Groh Artifact. The songs that would become Hot Pop formed out of a soundtrack created for one of his Nashville art shows displaying the felted friends, which introduced a new and unfamiliar way of song-building: music first.

grohartifact (Custom).jpeg A Groh Artifact.

“That was the biggest challenge for me. I kind of forced myself to do it differently to see how many voices I could get out of one person,” he says. “For me, they feel like completely different songs than the songs that start lyrically.”

From the opening, thunderous percussion line, it’s clear Hot Pop is a different animal than anything Groh’s made before. Where Bottomless Coffee melded heyday-era Bruce Springsteen intensity with folk and Appalachian influences, Hot Pop is the product of a folk singer fighting back against the power of Americana in its most influential city.

Groh moved from Boston to Nashville in 2012. The normal—and likely, really—track for him would’ve been a deep dive into the world of folk and Americana, doubling down on the elements he had explored captivatingly on the full-length album released earlier that year. He even admits he would likely be better off had he chosen that path instead of moving his music in a different direction.

“All my friends in Boston were excited for me to move to Nashville to grow further into that folk scene. But I got here, and I think I just fought it. It felt too omnipresent and it felt too comfortable,” he says. “Bottomless Coffee doesn’t stand out here as much, and it’s not like I was fighting to be heard but it’s always got to be interesting for me and once my songs start blending in, I start losing interest.”

The result of that push against Nashville’s historic sound is a brisk collection of songs that doesn’t feel thrown together or sound like a musician experimenting for the sake of it. Hot Pop is a burst of creative energy, fueled by influences from world music, electronica, trance, funk, anthemic pop, folk and more. Its brevity is breathtaking, hitting the listener quickly with a collage of sounds that is so rich, the whole experience feels more connective than some records three times its length, a quality that derived from the EP’s making.

“I finished that record [Ocelot], sat on it for a few months, then recorded Hot Pop and put that out not even a month after its completion,” Groh says. “I’m trying to be more cautious with the record, but with Hot Pop I just made it and let it go.”

Once the sound of Hot Pop coalesced, it took Groh little time to make something from it, but the journey to that point was long and contained a serious learning curve.

“There was a period of time where I was challenging myself to make the sort of music Hot Pop contains, but when I picked up a guitar, I would naturally start playing Bottomless Coffee-era style songs,” he says. “Now I’m to the point where the Hot Pop stuff comes more naturally and that’s what all my songs sound like right now.”

It was an increased focus on listening to the sounds inside himself that allowed the sonic change. Before Hot Pop, much of his music was reactionary, a reflection of what he was listening to. Down, Dakota!, the 2011 EP that marked the first release under his own name, is the most vivid portrait of that mindset. It came at a time when Groh was listening exclusively to Appalachian folk music, and the sound of the mountains rings through the four-song set. Hot Pop certainly has musical influences, but it’s the product of a musician chasing sounds in his head, and learning how to make something different. It gives the project a vitality; you can hear how excited Groh is to be exploring new territory in every song.

Having a major shift sonically presents myriad complications, but for a working musician it is especially difficult learning how to bring new sounds to a live setting.

“Some of the shows following Bottomless Coffee, when I was shedding skin and trying to do more complex electronic arrangements, were pretty awkward,” he says. “I feel now like I have a foundation upon which I can challenge myself. We can easily make Hot Pop sound like Hot Pop, but in our live shows we challenge ourselves to interpret those sounds in a band setting so it becomes even fuller.”

Though there are a bevy of new sounds for Groh on the EP, particularly an emphasis on percussion and electronics but also heavy guitar riffs and a feverishly catchy sitar line on the penultimate track “Sumac,” Hot Pop is not off-putting to anyone who’s heard Groh’s music before. The connective tissue remains intact thanks to the artist’s inimitable lyricism and trademark honesty.

Years as a lyrics-first musician have shaped Groh into an unmistakably talented songwriter. Even with emphasis placed on a fresh sonic direction, the words shine on Hot Pop. They work well because of Groh’s distinct phrasing and substantial poetic lean. He’s always been a poetic songwriter, and is so without losing connection to reality. Other artists can get lost in pretty metaphors, expounding on them until the message becomes muddied, but Groh has a knack for bringing songs home with direct lines that cut away flowery language.

The words of Hot Pop are not left out of the revolution, either. Though they feel familiar, like the EP’s sound, there is obvious growth. The best track among the four, all of which are infectiously good, is “FCKNU,” whose chorus begins “Fucking you feels so lonesome/Rogue river that I shouldn’t have gone down.” That song in particular, but the EP as a whole, has an edge Groh’s music has not displayed in the past. It works superbly with the new sonic elements, creating a sound profile that contains more than a dash of attitude.

Up next for Groh is the aforementioned Ocelot, an 11-track full-length album planned for 2016 that he says acts somewhat as a bridge between Bottomless Coffee and Hot Pop.

“It’s so incredibly different from Hot Pop. It’s not like I made [Ocelot] and then the EP was a continuation of that; they’re completely different bodies of work,” he says. “There are acoustic guitars, lots of brass, Ocelot is so much more organic than Hot Pop, but even bigger.”

No matter where Ocelot takes his sound, Groh is committed to keeping it fresh. In that way Hot Pop embodies what his music will sound like in the future, not so much that a 2018 record from Groh will be a continuation of the electronic and world music focus the EP has, but that it could sound wholly different, in the same way Hot Pop is a shocking switch from Bottomless Coffee.

“I’m going to keep experimenting until I’m done making music,” he says. “That’s part of the fun of it for me, not falling into ‘my thing’ but to keep creating new things.”