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That One Song

The Animal Beat, “Spectacled Caiman”



Although the musicians in the Animal Beat knew each other in high school, it took a few years before everyone made it back to Richmond. Then, former band mates Jeff Linka and Travis Tucker met up to write some songs, with no intentions to form another band. “I think it happened when we started to think of band names just for fun,” Tucker says. The Animal Beat, which was the initial title for the song “A Drum to Pound,” sounded more like the name of a band.

“Once we had a band name, it just seemed logical that we just make a full band of it.” Tucker says. The two guitarists filled out their lush pop-rock melodies by adding fellow Godwin alumni David Graham and Paul Howard on keys and drums. Andrew Saunders, who had performed in bands alongside them over the years, was asked to play bass. One year and one six-song EP later (“Ambient Jungle Noise”), the Animal Beat reveals who inspired the song that inspired the band's name.

Style: What is the true origin of “The Animal Beat?”
David Graham: It's a lyric from the song “A Drum to Pound.”
Jeff Linka: I had the guitar part and a few of the other lines (of the song), but I hadn't written lyrics. I was with my family in Alaska and we were walking in Denali on this long road and there were bears and all sorts of animals. It was really cool. The line in the song goes “with the bears in the city streets, howling and growling to the animal beat.” I thought of that because we stayed with my uncle who lives in Juneau. Juneau's a very small town, like one neighborhood, and he lives catty-cornered to this really big house. One night, we saw a bear walking around the streets. Usually, everyone has their trash cans bolted down (to keep bears away), but that big house didn't have its trash super-secure. As it turns out, it was Sarah Palin's house. I didn't know it was the governor's mansion! So, that song is partially inspired by Sarah Palin, although it's not a political statement.
Style: Tell us about that one song...
Travis Tucker: Jeff had the verse-chorus-verse to “Spectacled Caiman” and then he brought it to me and it organically came together on guitar. But, we didn't know what was going to happen with this song once we got a full band together.
Paul Howard: The song has matured so much.
Graham: It ended up showcasing a lot of everybody and I think that's where we get a lot more adventurous with the harmonies.
Tucker: There's a lot of pop harmonies, but it's not the quintessential pop-structured song. We get a lot of weirdness in this one. Plus, the song has robot voices. I have an old drum machine that's only ever been used for this song.
Graham: It's like a 1980's kids drum kit before there were actual drum kits. The only thing it has that's meaningful is four different buttons that count off “1,2,3,4.” There's a count off in the song and for some weird reason that just worked really well.
Tucker: Jeff put it up on a blog and said, “Hey, check out this song.” One of the key things people were saying was, “I love the robot voice.” The robot voice has one-upped all of us.
Linka: I was worried at first too, because there's that and then conveniently going into the second verse, there's a lyric that goes, “I woke up the next day” and right before that there's a pause where we put the sound of an alarm clock. We had had these ideas and I was horrified. I thought one of them was cool, but before I heard (the finished song), I thought there were going to be stupid effects everywhere.
Graham: It's a quirky song anyway. There's a part in there that I play on the synthesizer that Andrew was trying to fill in (on bass) and it's the part that sticks. I can't hear the song now without hearing that part in my head. That was something that wasn't in the song for a awhile. Andrew was like “Can you do something here, almost like a Bach, fugue type thing?” And it just worked. We get suggestions like that a lot of times where we try it out and it works and we go with it. Our songs are in a constant state of change until we get them where we're happy with them.
Tucker: There's one part where it all opens up and David does a piano solo and then it closes up and goes back to Jeff singing. I think initially we thought that's where we'd let it end, but Jeff kept playing one time and for some reason I played a different chord than we'd been playing over top. It seemed to go well and it changed the whole vibe of the song at the end.
Linka: The song is called “Spectacled Caiman” because I was in Peru and we saw this spectacled caiman, which is small crocodile. I equated that trip with this song, because it was on that trip when I decided I was going to quit my job.
Tucker: Jeff has to go to a different part of the world to write each song. It's really expensive songwriting.
Linka: I had been at this job where I was really unhappy. I was at a point where I worked there long enough to realize I didn't hate working, I hated the job. I remember getting to the Washington, D.C. airport and thinking “Oh god, I have to go back to work.” It was kind of depressing. So on the surface, this song sounds like it's about somebody quitting their job. But, I also look at it as a little bit more. If everything everywhere is going so badly, the economy is bad, everyone's at war, we might blow ourselves up, we might as well be doing what we enjoy.
There's a line where the protagonist has just quit his job and the boss basically says, “you can't play music, you have to make money.” And I say, “Go take all your favorite songs, but you can't just listen, you gotta sing along.” That lyric says I don't want to just bang around on guitar, I want to really mean it, and put an honest effort towards it, and have some conviction behind it.
Graham: Lyrically, it encompasses the band as a whole, if you're going to draw some global conclusion about it.  We're all in a transitional phase in our lives and I don't think any of us are doing something we want to do for the next thirty years. At the same time, we're all carving out time to do what we really love and that's play music together.
Linka: I think David saying that is right. The interesting thing about it, about all of our songs lyrically, is that it's not something you can sit down and say, “I want to write a song about where we are or where I am.” Then, all of sudden, you sit down and do it and it couldn't possibly have any other meaning. It's very unintentional and you don't really realize how you feel about something until you've written the song.
Tucker: My cousin says he loves “Spectacled Caiman” because he's in that same transitional period and is kind of scared of what's coming next. He doesn't want to let go of what was, but we all understand life is continuing on and we have to grow with it.
Linka: He went on to say the song saved his life. (all laugh)
Tucker: The song is about doing what you want to do, not what you have to do. And doing what you want to do for the right reasons, what feels right. Even my mom said this song speaks to her, because she was in a job recently that she hated. She was in a job that wasn't exactly where she wanted to be anymore, but she was too nervous to walk out the door, too nervous to quit. Because once you leave, even though it feels right, where do you go from there?
The song is constantly building and at the end it gets to the point where we're chanting “walk out!” and it never gets resolved. It leaves you on the cliff, and to me, it's sort of a handing off to the listener. Now it's up to you to decide. Even when we're playing it, it feels unresolved. You're left with a feeling of, “what now?”
Graham: At that point, Paul is hitting as hard as he can and you think he's going to break into a beat and then he just stops. That was the hardest part early on for him, not to break into a beat. I'd look over at him to make sure he's not going to do it, and he called it the death stare.
Tucker: James Brown had it. In James Brown's band, if he gave you a certain look, then that means you're fired and after the show just don't talk to him. I think we gave Paul that stare.
Style: Tell us about your PBS special...
Graham: Andrew had a good friend who worked for VCU TV. They profile local bands and shoot some of their songs. He'd wanted to do something with Andrew for awhile, but every time they would try, his band would break up.
It came together nicely, but we had to rearrange a lot of our songs. They wanted to shoot us outside, so we had to figure out ways to do things acoustically. We shot around Richmond to get a lot of noticeable landmarks. We shot “Ordinary” in the back of a truck driving through Richmond and they did a good job of catching the Diamond. We shot in Main Street Train Station, we shot on Belle Isle with the sun coming up, we shot in Dogwood Dell in Byrd Park, and we shot walking down Cary Street past the Byrd Theatre. If you know Richmond, you can catch a lot of landmarks while you're listening.
Tucker: Probably my favorite was “Dogs Along the Way,” which we'd never played before. The sun was setting, it the last shot of the day in Jefferson Park. Jeff was like, “I have this song, want to play it?”
Howard: There were 14 songs we did on the PBS special and a lot of songs we learned on the fly.
Graham: We had the six songs from our EP, because we were getting them ready to record. Travis and Jeff had a lot of stuff on the back burner they had written, but we hadn't tried together. Not only were we taking our old songs and trying to covert them acoustically, but we learned new songs and figured out the instruments for them, too. I got a melodica and a xylophone, stuff you can carry around and play outside.
Tucker: One thing about the melodica (a tiny keyboard with a mouthpiece you blow into), we didn't realize the more fingers you put on it, the harder you have to blow. David was using all ten fingers on it all the time and so in all the shots his cheeks are so puffed out.
Graham: After awhile, I was like, “I need to dumb this thing down a bit, just play the melody line here.”.
Tucker: It runs once a month, but you can find it on YouTube and our myspace ( When they profile the bands, they usually film a live show and interview the band afterward. They really wanted to try something different and thought we were the right band to do it. We had only been a band for about a month. It really showed us what we are as a band, and where we want to go.

The Animal Beat will perform live January 16th at The Camel, along with Marionette. Show time is 8pm and the cover is $5.


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