Cheap City Create A Diverse Collection of Personal Anthems That Reaffirm Growth and Positivity in the Face of Disparity on “Ten Years Without Rami Holding”
“..they are no strangers to this metropolis’s urban decay.”
Cheap City isn’t a real place, at least in the physical realm, but it’s a place that, when described to anyone who has had to call any urban environment “home” before, becomes instantly familiar and relatable. While the group documenting its people and stories may have only been a team for five years now, they are no strangers to this metropolis’s urban decay.
“Ten Years Without Rami Holding” released last month as the group’s first full length effort since 2019’s “Rats and Rascals.” According to lyricist and multi-instrumentalist Clover Nahabedian, the general concept of the record follows “a photographer who comes back to Cheap City after being gone for ten years. It’s about confronting gentrification and what feels like seeing everything in America turn into an endless strip mall.” While this photographer remains unnamed, one can connect the dots to Clover’s personal journey throughout the events that transpire over the record’s nearly 40-minute runtime.
The record begins with a rather upbeat instrumental, “Marked for Error,” painting a scene without words to make it feel like we’re on the bus ride back to Cheap City. What starts as whimsical and hopeful turns cloudy and uncertain just before we disembark into the next track, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” No punches are thrown as the real city sprawls before us, filled with reckless abandon and a healthy dose of nihilism in the face of an uncaring commercial void. It’s Saturday night, you’ve seen all the city can offer already, and the only thing that can make you feel alive anymore is indulgence in momentary pleasures with those around you.
Hopeless detachment grows in the title track, driven by cheerful piano flourishes underlined by a brooding bassline and nuanced percussion. I have to highlight the polished focus of drummer Cody Gagen on here and throughout the album. They do an amazing job of organizing the rest of the group’s ideas, propelling everyone forward or holding them back where appropriate, allowing everything to breathe naturally. Our protagonist takes an introspective pause here, reflecting on their previous adventures in now unfamiliar places that used to be home and wondering how “ten years removed” has changed things for them, for better or worse.
Surf’s up in track 4, “Drag Race,” a delightful trip through a very personal struggle and a beautiful, positive affirmation. Our protagonist seems to have broken through themselves and realized more of who they are after confronting their anxieties head-on. The rhythm section gets to stretch out a bit as well with some traded solos near the end.
Energy and self-affirmation remains high on “F-Stop,” where our protag continues their self-care journey throughout the city by maintaining their positive field of view. A little tricky poly-rhythmic action cuts things up before we continue the thoughts in the groove on track 6, “I Love Trouble,” led by bassist Brendan Blendell’s bangin’ boogie bass bombs. This track resonates with me the most, both in the low-end realm as a bassist myself, and in the depiction of those dopamine loops we can find ourselves in:
Stop to think
Chew the fat”
Sip the drink
I regularly slip into these exact same patterns. I’ll get an idea that pulls me from the present, shift all my focus onto it, get distracted by some other indulgence, and then repeat the pattern, leaving every good idea unfinished. “Ivy Cochran” leads these feelings into a desperate plea for breaking the same, depicting the herculean effort needed to inspire yourself when continually stifled by one’s environment. “Lot’s been developed but unimproved / so I want to leave here, too.”
Track 8, “Never Once Was” begins with a bleak chorus: “My new hotel has a coffin for a bed” and the listener (or, at least, this listener) feels like they’re in this coffin with the protagonist. Every instrument and vocal sounds murky–buried even–and portrays wistful musings in what feels like a parting song for our protagonist. We’re carried onto the next track, “The 36th Annual Meeting of the Cheap City Gravedigger’s Choral Union”. Did we actually die? No, but we are amongst the dead, both literally and metaphorically, and this could very well connect the metaphor into the death of Clover’s previous gender identity. Indeed, track 10 ties it together with another raucous celebration of realization of one’s self. It all comes to a head for me in the antepenultimate “Hop to It, Bob Huett” with the earnest declaration: “I want my life to be more than just feeling bored.” I could scream that from the rooftops of Cheap City any and every night.
An abrupt awakening after the gallivanting comes with an alarm clock sample in “Stock Market Hotdog Lunch”, a song depicting an awkward but necessary separation over a meal. These separation anxieties and blues get further fleshed out with the final track, “Flu Feelings,” a forlorn farewell in favor of freedom. Our protagonist escapes the people, the city, and the “thought debris”, but not without great effort and lingering aches. This is to be expected however; the present was formed in the wake of these last ten years. Change cannot happen overnight, but the gradual process must be started somewhere. While revisiting one’s past and processing trauma puts incredible strain on you, like a flu, it’s a momentary sickness that is also a sign of the fight within. You can only win if you keep fighting, and that’s what our protagonist–and Cheap City–continues to do.
What did you eat before answering this question?
When I was in college and didn’t know how to cook I created a meal I called Grumbo. It was my dead name (Greg) plus gumbo. I didn’t know what gumbo was, but grumbo was basically like a weird stir fry. Last year I changed my name to Clover and now it’s called Clumbo. To make Clumbo you start with some basmati or jasmine rice and melt butter (I use earth balance) and add a big heap of nutritional yeast. I add some chickpeas and craisins. Voila. Please send me pictures of you trying clumbo at home. I really like experimenting in the kitchen and coming up with weird shit. It reminds me of what I love about making music in a free space with little to no rules.
How did the album writing process change for the band with the pandemic?
Pre pandemic a lot of our writing was me bringing in sheet music to practice ad all of us kind of collaborating on the framework I had written. About half of the new album was written in isolation and involved me sending lead sheets to the rest of the band, who’d make a demo, and then we’d edit. The title track was fully demoed in isolation before we ever got to play it together. Now we get to regularly practice in person again so we’ve gone back to some in the room arranging together, but in the song writing stage I’m trying to be a little more deliberate about what I put on the page.
What’s the most recent thing you did in an act of self-care, whether for yourself or someone else?
I’ve been trying to find time every week to not do anything. Not writing, not working, not practicing, and just giving myself time to let my mind wander. It’s been really healthy and cathartic for me to kind of free myself from any self imposed expectations for a little bit.
There were some very interesting progressive moments throughout the album. How do those ideas come together during the writing process?
I generally don’t like doing things are complex or hard or weird just for their own sake, but I generally like things that are a little off kilter. Like they’re familiar but something is kind of wrong. Sometimes that means playing with phrase lengths or just chopping part of a beat out of a measure. But other times that means writing some kind of longer melodic bit that we all work through together. But all of these things usually come after thinking about the song from a really zoomed out perspective – where were thinking about things in terms of just verses and choruses and chords – like what the broad strokes of the song are.
What piece of gear have you bought that significantly affected your creativity? (If no gear, just anything in your life that’s affected you creatively.)
I think my songwriting changes depending on the instrument I have in front of me. A lot of the last album was written at the piano, but previous songs were written directly to paper without any instruments at my disposal, and I think the difference between our earlier output and the new album is self evident. Lately I’ve been writing more at the electric organ – the band bought me a new synthesizer for my birthday last year and having that at my disposal has changed how I’ve been generating material – i.e. thinking more about texture than harmony.
What albums and bands have you really been digging recently?
The new US Girls is great. Fucked Up has a fantastic new album. Deerhoof and New Pornographers both have records coming out soon that I’m excited about. Our friend Dan Thorn has a new band called Starlings and their most recent record sounds amazing. Then there’s Daphne Blue Underworld, Scarcity, Kraanerg, Idaho Green, Tiffy, Nurse Joy, PWRUP, Bochek, amiright. Red Eft is a fucking great new band from Portland. I listen to the most recent Land of Kush album pretty often. Object Collection is a really cool experimental opera group out of New York. I spend a lot of time hoping that Quintron is going to come back to Boston. I don’t know – I could spend all day listing all the great music that’s inspiring me and my community.
What tips do you have for other creatives out there?
I work as a piano and composition teacher so I get asked this pretty much every day, and what I usually say is listen to, read, watch, and engage with as much art as you can all the time with no consideration to genre or convention. Be extremely open minded and curious all the time. Make the thing that makes sense to you and try not to care if people haven’t caught up to you just yet. Make a bunch of stuff with a lot of passion and care, and then flip it on its head and try something totally different. Go to lots of stuff. Engage with the stuff you like, learn from the stuff you don’t, and don’t feel like you have to love something or someone or go to a particular show just because lots of other people are. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake and admit it. Learn about things outside of your comfort zone. Learn how to put things out on your own.
What’s next for the band?
Playing out as much as possible this summer and fall. We just had a new member join the band who plays guitar and saxophone so we’ve been teaching her our catalog and rearranging some songs for the new lineup. Next month we have a remix EP coming out – it’s a series of remixes of our song “Stompin’ At The Swamp.” We have some other singles coming out and have a split 7” with the band Idaho Green. We’re working on a radio play that’s going to be released as a podcast and is kind of a noir. There’s two more EP’s coming out later this year and we’re writing the next full length which is going to come out early next year. We’re busy!
Any closing musings?
Mostly just that I’m really grateful for being able to play and write music as much as I do. Thanks to everyone who’s checking out the record and coming to shows. The response to it has been really gratifying so far and I’m excited for folks to hear what we’re doing next. Also I’ve been thinking lately about how in the first Santa Clause movie, Peter Boyle plays Tim Allen’s boss at the toy company, but in Santa Clause 2 and 3 he plays Father Time, and I just like imagining a world where everyone who works at the toy company with Tim Allenis also turning into magical holiday mascots.