By New Times
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By Mark Deming
By Serene Dominic
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Spirit Cave is a young band, but members Ryan Breen and Michael Bell have been playing shows together for more than a decade, each with his primary band, Back Ted N-Ted and Lymbyc Systym, respectively. It was only a matter of time before they struck out together.
Given Breen's expressive, synth-driven pop in Back Ted N-Ted and Bell's beautiful instrumental post-rock in Lymbyc, one might imagine Spirit Cave trading in epic, M83-meets-The Postal Service sounds.
But Breen and Bell like surprises, and Spirit Cave finds itself positioned far away from the duo's other projects.
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"I've been really inspired by Fleetwood Mac and The Cars, and a lot of '80s big California productions, [like] the classic [Beatles-style] production," says Breen. Collaborating as a full live band marks refreshing change for the former one-man-band leader, and the West Coast pop traditions suit Spirit Cave on well its debut EP, ∞8.
Perhaps it's Breen's move back west that inspired the sun-kissed sounds. Breen recently moved back to his home state of Arizona following a 21/2-year stay in New York City, where he recorded for Modern Art Records (Miniature Tigers, Geography, Pretty and Nice, Chain Gang of 1974) when he wasn't busy with his role in English chanteuse Imogen Heap's live band.
The domino effect that led him back to Phoenix started when he was dismissed from Heap's group and soon thereafter found himself at odds with his label. His decision to forgo touring in support of Back Ted N-Ted's The Mirror meant that Modern Art's parent company, ILG, wouldn't push the record. In turn, the record foundered, ending up on iTunes with little fanfare while Breen sought out catering and bartending jobs.
"I definitely was pretty upset about how it all panned out and got into it with [Ben Collins,] the owner of Modern Art," says Breen. "I was definitely pretty hard on him and said some mean things, and he did back and burned a bridge. It was a long time in the making. There was a lot of pent-up resentment I had toward him about how he handled my stuff."
He moved back to Phoenix in 2011 after his grandfather died, and, he says, the creative drive to write music wasn't there. With Back Ted N-Ted still legally bound to Modern Art, the prospect of playing music wasn't particularly appealing to Breen.
"I'd make attempts to write songs, and I was really angry and upset about how it all went down. I couldn't get inspired, I couldn't get past that emotional reaction to it," says Breen. "It took me a good year to get over it, to get to a positive place and feel good about being creative again."
During Breen's dry spell, he took a job at Phoenix Theatre, where he met his current girlfriend. He appreciated the company's frank approach when it came to professional feedback. Breen uses the same constructive honesty with Spirit Cave, fostering a creative songwriting environment with Bell.
"I was trying to take a more abstract approach with Spirit Cave. It was more about the words and less about putting myself out there," Breen says in reference to Back Ted N-Ted's literal songwriting. "[It's] more about the music and the picture that it paints."
Breen also handles the business side of Spirit Cave and plans to self-release an EP every few months. The band's first effort, ∞8, chronicles the songwriter's conflicts leaving Modern Art and struggling to find creativity.
"The idea of a 'spirit cave' is a place where you go to be spiritual," Breen says. "It's kind of a joke, but it's kind of serious, too. [I want the music] to feel like a spirit cave, to feel like a safe place, a spiritual realm."