July 25, 2005

Interview: Cartel

Cartel, a relatively new Washington, DC five-piece, are humble yet ambitious, just what a band needs to be to make it big. And that is just what they are set to do. Ed Barnabas (drums), Mark Hemingway (guitar), Francisco Lazzaro (bass guitar), Luke Mangels (guitar, keys, vocals), and Brian Leatherman (vocals, guitar) stand out from most other DC musicians, as their sound is as far as you can get from Fugazi. Cartel is about dreamy landscapes, and melodic and layered compositions, driven by uplifting riffs and bittersweet vocals. Brian and Ed took time out after their show at Club Five to speak with me about the band's past, present and bright future.

I know you all have day jobs. Do you ever feel weird about having white collars jobs and then playing in a band at night?

Brian: I guess one thing that's kind of weird for me is when people from my work come to shows . . .

Ed: You kind of feel like you're running in two worlds, you know. Like, you have your closet, and half is your work clothes and half is your "going out" clothes. It's a little strange . . . we're getting to that point where we're going to have to start touring more. Up until this point we weren't playing a lot of concerts, and having a 9-to-5 works because it's more money than waiting tables or something and you have your evenings free and your weekends free. But it starts to become a problem. I mean, now you see why a lot of musicians have odd jobs, because now that we're going to start doing a lot of shows, its harder to get away from work. We're all trying to take it one day at a time, and make sure we don't lose our jobs or anything. But it is a little tough now because we're getting a little bit . . . I don't know the word . . .

Brian: More buzzed about.

I understand from what I've read that the band found you, Brian, through a want ad for a singer. Is that right?

B: Yeah, it was actually a Craig's List ad. I had been looking to do something, and musically I'd been playing for about seven years before I . . uh . . Oh my God, look at that rat.

[Look over and see the one of the biggest rats I've ever seen] Oh my God. That's huge!

B: Sorry about that [laughing]. I'd been playing guitar for about seven years before and I'd been looking for something more in DC rather than just playing on acoustic guitar and stuff. I came across his Craig's List ad and he listed all the references that I was into at the time . . . Doves, Elbow, Interpol. So I called them up. I wasn't actually a singer, which I found out [laughs] during rehearsals.

Why do you think you weren't a singer?

B: Well, I'd never really explored how to sing. I'd never even really ventured into singing, or thinking about singing, but they were looking for a singer and we had the right references. So I went for rehearsal and played guitar and didn't sing, 'cause I was hung over and I think . . .

E: I think that was it.

That probably helped you, actually.

B: Yeah, it worked in my favor. I really didn't feel like singing that first night.

So you had mutual influences? What kind of bands did all of you listen to?

E: I think the influence thing was the biggest reason we all found each other. The only people who knew each other were me and Luke, the keyboardist/guitar player, and we just wanted to start a band. We thought it would be hard to find . . . I mean, some of our influences are, probably the older ones are like U2, The Cure, New Order, things like that, and more current, like Coldplay, Interpol, Doves, definately Elbow. So a lot of British groups. We were just so tired of not giving it a go so we just put ads up. Luke answered an ad that Mark had, the other guitar player, and he showed up for one practice and we were sold, because he instantly plugged in and just played exactly what we wanted to hear. On the next rehearsal we had, we called Fico, who Luke met through the 9:30 [Club] forum, and he plugged in and it instantly worked. And we were like, "Wow, this is a little bit easier than we thought, so now we just need a vocalist." Fast forward a year later, and a lot of bad auditions . . . just not great . . .

B: Including mine.

E: [Laughs] I mean we were losing a little bit of hope because us four were playing without a singer for almost a year and we just couldn't find anybody. We auditioned 20-25 people and nothing worked out. Then, Brian told you what happened. But that was the main thing. In a city where a show like Interpol or something is going to be sold out, or Doves are going to be sold out, surprisingly, you won't find a lot of people who want to play stuff along those lines. We found each other and just knew that we had a good lineup.

Speaking of British music, I know you've been played on WOXY and independent radio stations, and you had a single released on Bracken Records in the UK. What radio stations are playing you there?

E: I think we're a little bit hazy [about that]. For a while there was one show called Totally Wired UK. She liked us a lot. She featured us on her top ten or something like that, and I think we got some play from XM in London. Other than that . . .

B: We don't really have a good sense of who is playing us.

E: The guy at Bracken says that we've been played, but I guess it's hard to kind of keep tabs because he lives here. So it's sort of like throwing something over a fence, you know. You just throw it over there. We got a lot of random e-mails from people from the UK . . . fans and promotion companies and some labels, so we knew that it got out there, but to this day we're not sure how people found us. We get these emails, but we never ask, "Well how did you find out?" And we always mean to, but we just figure we'll just go with it. But I knw we've got some warm response there, so that's good.

I lived in London for a year and I'm really into British music, and I think you guys would be big in the UK.

E: We're hoping. We're hoping to quit our day jobs . . . and move there [ laughing].

I've heard of bands that have more of a British sound actually transplanting themselves. Like Trespassers William, from California. I think they actually moved to London for a while and just blew up.

B: Oh wait didn't they play on Morning Becomes Eclectic? And I think the Strokes lived in the UK, and then they came over to the US.

E: A lot of bands, you know like Interpol, Strokes, made it big there first, and then struck here second, so maybe we'll fall in those lines. We'll take here or there.

So you definately want to quit your day jobs and be career musicians?

E: Absolutely.

B: I mean we're pretty focused.

E: I've been in bands before Cartel, and the weird thing is all five of us . . . not to speak ill of past band members, but everyone is really well-read, not flaky, very professional. At the same time, everyone is successful in what they do day-job-wise, but I think we set the rules in the beginning that "If we're going to do this, is everybody on board for if that time comes? Are you ready to drop [everything] and do it?" And everyone is, 100% all the way.

B: Yeah. 110%. So, the scary thing is we think it could be happening, when we've got to make that choice. And it's hard, you know, but it'll happen. It's a choice where we have our lives, you know, all of our lives. I mean, we're all set in different areas and sort of established. Then you sort of hit that tipping point of being in a band where you either get signed or you need to deprioritize the band for the sake of mortgages.

Cartel will be playing at the Black Cat with Washington Social Club and Monopoly on Fri., Aug. 5.

Click here to buy the Safety in Numbers EP (2004)
Click here to download and listen to five full tracks by Cartel