The symbiotic convergence of music and art. Not just music as art, but when art is at the crux of every step of the musical process, to the point where sonic elements ooze with a visual journey of the mind; a multisensory experience. San Francisco electro dream-pop duo Cathedrals, whose debut Cathedrals EP came out in September on Neon Gold Records, is a product of this very concept.
In fact, the first time I met with Cathedrals’ Johnny Hwin, it was at his collaborative art/music space, The SUB, a warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District that Hwin describes as “a base in the city, whether you’re a creative who lives in SF or are a creative who happens to be flowing through the city to perform a show or showcase work there.” The SUB, which has hosted photo shoots in the past for heavy hitters such as Grimes and Twin Shadow, proved to be the meeting point for Hwin and Cathedrals’ singer Brodie Jenkins when they were introduced through a mutual friend who was part of the same arts community.
Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different: Jenkins grew up on a Sonoma county apple orchard and played in a touring family folk band. Hwin, meanwhile, grew up on classical music in a Northern California suburb and later toured for a short stint with indie-electro group Blackbird, Blackbird. But they found common ground in their love for rock and roll and it goes to show what a beautiful world we live in, a place that brings together a singer with roots in folk music and a producer who studied Chopin and DeBussy into a dreamy electronic project. One quickly gets the feeling that Cathedrals’ artistic paths were destined to cross.
Their output is often ethereal and stems from a combination of talent and approach. Jenkins’ presence is radiant, and on tracks such as “Want My Love,” she comes across as a budding Jessie Ware with a similarly elegant delivery. Hwin, on the other hand, is the master facilitator. The multi-instrumentalist’s artistic philosophy is nothing short of inspiring. “It’s important to have powerful distinctions in our nomenclature. We don’t curate art, because that implies a judgement; we celebrate art. Celebration is much more encouraging than discouraging. And really, that’s what we’re trying to do with all our endeavors as it bleeds into what Brodie and I are doing with Cathedrals.”
It’s this philosophy leading the way that has Cathedrals picking up steam. They were singled out by the CMJ Music Marathon as a “breakout act,” are on Spotify Emerge’s shortlist (which has yielded past winners like Atlas Genius and Bastille) and recorded soon to be released sessions with Sofar Sounds and Daytrotter. On their can’t-miss single, “Harlem,” there’s a beautiful balance of Jenkins’ carefully layered vocals and Hwin on the guitar. Although the drums and effects make it seem like the song is heading in one direction, an alarming guitar solo punctuates the confluence of sounds and the listener can’t help but smile at the unexpected deviation.
But for all of their momentum, no endeavor has flexed the duo’s belief in their music as a collaborative art form quite as much as their spellbinding video for “Unbound,” one of the most effortlessly extravagant and accomplished videos of the year. The product of an effort between local San Francisco artists and friends is shot by Isaac Bauman (Drake, Sam Smith, Blood Orange) and features world-renowned (yet also SF-based) ballerina Maria Kochetkova, who along with Hwin and Jenkins, take turns in front of the marvelous Sugar Cubes light sculpture; A veritable mountain of LED-laced cubes that pulsate and flicker along with the music, both pre-programmed and naturally with the tune. “We thought it was a beautiful synthesis of what we strive for, which is a harmonious dichotomy of the electronic, with a very organic feel,” said Hwin.
A lot has gone right for this band thus far, especially the release of the Cathedrals EP on Neon Gold Records. The label, owned and operated by MSMR frontwoman Lizzy Plapinger, has quickly become a go-to label for budding electro-pop artists. Neon Gold caught wind of Cathedrals’ first single, “Unbound” on Hype Machine. “Next thing you know, we’re at Dolores Park (a classic San Francisco hill-top urban park) with Lizzy, talking about music and sharing our dreams,” says Hwin.
“When we put out our second single, ‘Harlem,’ Lizzy and Neon Gold reached back out and said that they’d love to make an official EP with us.” Hwin continued. Jenkins is wisely taking notes from Plapinger as she rises as a lead singer herself. “She’s an incredible mentor to have. She knows what it’s like to be an artist and I look to her for encouragement and advice.”
Soon after, I found myself also sitting in Dolores Park with Cathedrals, in the same place where they’d met Plapinger the first time. We sat on a bench at the top of the hill and looked out onto the sweeping skyline on the horizon, lining the edge of the Bay. Johnny has a playful demeanor. He cracks jokes often and frequently asks questions about writing as a career. No art is too gauche to exclude from his interest.
With the warm breeze blowing by on an Indian summer day in San Francisco, it felt like a fitting place to speak with a band that truly bleeds their city of origin, a place whose music scene has had a tumultuous recent history, with many of their prominent musicians relocating to Los Angeles or New York City.
Despite that, a cluster of both established and up-and-coming electronic artists call SF home (Tycho, Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza, Giraffage, et al) and have formed the heartbeat of an arts scene that Cathedrals are fully committed to. “We couldn’t be prouder of SF and the scene, and that’s why we won’t leave. There are a lot of artists that left, but we want to stay,” Jenkins says.
Johnny has a production studio in the basement of a gargantuan Victorian home in the Mission district. Besides The SUB, this is where the band practices and creates their music, and where they look forward to putting finishing touches on their next pieces of material.
Indeed, recording is definitely a priority. For a band that’s just had a successful CMJ run and could easily take the EP on a small tour, they’re instead ready to add to their arsenal of music. With new videos and songs on the horizon, the fusion of music and art never vanishes as the central theme of their creation. “One thing we’re very mindful of musically and visually, is that we want to convey a unified aesthetic artistically,” Hwin concludes. And that way Cathedrals has manifested their unique artistic philosophy into their music is exactly what makes them The Best of What’s Next.