This time last year, Gaurav Bashyakarla was preparing to move from Lawrence to California. A week before he was set to leave, Bashyakarla got together with his friend Josh Thomas and spent a couple of afternoons recording music in Thomas' basement.
"We'd always talked about recording together," Thomas says. "We were messing around with all this stuff I have: an old Clavinova, a bunch of guitar pedals, different effects. We just plugged it all up and played whatever weird music we could come up with. Then we kind of edited it all together. Didn't really think too much of it. Written, recorded and done in, like, seven hours."
Shortly afterward, Bashyakarla went through what he describes as "some personal turmoil" and he found himself unable to relocate. He elected to stick around Lawrence and finish his degree, a decision that coincided with those recordings (which he and Thomas put online under the name CVLTS) finding their way to people at AMDISCS, a European label with an eye toward experimental and ambient music. AMDISCS subsequently released those afternoon recordings on 100 limited-edition cassettes, titled LVST. The tapes quickly sold out.
"Once we got AMDISCS to put our stuff on their label and website, Gaurav started talking to other [labels], like Atelier Ciseaux in France, which put out [CVLTS' next release] Black Hole, Hi Five," Thomas says. "I like pretty much everything those labels have released, so it was pretty cool to have the first two things that you release come out on those labels."
As CVLTS' strange distillation of improvisation, keyboards, loops and field recordings has been finding an audience overseas and in the experimental music community, the group has been inviting other musicians in Lawrence to join.
"Gaurav doesn't really drive, so pretty much any musician that brings him up [to Thomas' house] ends up playing on the recording, too," Thomas says. Such is the way that Taylor Coates (who helps run Thomas and Bashyakarla's new label, Beer on the Rug) ended up on the band's newest release, Realiser, and how Brian Shattuck ended up joining CVLTS for Theta Distractions. These additional musicians have changed the dynamic in CVLTS in some ways: Realiser has a more beefed-up sound, with a richer low end. But Thomas says that's not necessarily due to the additional keyboards that Coates brought with him.
"We have more effects now. When we recorded Black Hole, Hi Five, we were going through two delay pedals, a loop pedal, a Big Muff, and maybe something else," he says. "On this one, we had one little recording area where we'd set up a keyboard going through 10 different effects into an amp. Then we had another keyboard going through seven or eight effects into an amp. And I had a guitar going through a lot of effects into an amp."
You might assume that the sonic wash you hear on a CVLTS album is the result of hours spent mixing and tweaking, but that's not the case. Despite all the bells and whistles upfront, the recording process for CVLTS is where the tinkering ends.
"Almost all of our stuff has been done in just one weekend per release, with pretty much no songs written coming into it," Thomas says. "I'd say that 80 percent of the time, what ends up being the song is just playing stuff. Like, we'll all have things set up, working at the same time with, like, three or four different amps in the room, all close-mic'd. I'll go through it later, and if two of three parts sound really cool together, I might cut the third part a little. Or I'll take a section I like a lot and loop that around a little bit."
This loose orchestration of sounds is what allows CVLTS' music to breathe. Its albums have an openness about them similar to white space in a painting: It's what's not there that allows the listener to focus so closely on what has been created. It's difficult to take in sometimes. It's far from most pop music in the United States, though Thomas doesn't see the band's foreign labels and "weirdo European music scene" as being necessarily better than anything in America.
"I think there's already a bigger scene of what we're doing over here over there, and that's why it's maybe easier for European labels to put out what we do."
CVLTS is bound for Europe at the end of July to take advantage of that bigger scene. In addition to the Creepy Teepee Festival being thrown by AMDISCS outside Prague the last weekend in July, CVLTS plans to travel to the Endorcism Festival in Berlin in August. The group will spend two weeks traveling the continent, sharing a van with two other American acts on AMDISCS — Dream Boat and Jef Barbara.
"Atelier Ciseaux is in Paris, and we're going to play one of their showcases, and I think there's a few shows in between, too," Thomas says. "That's why we're going to Europe — the people that are putting out our music and selling it for us are over there, and they're offering to pay us for shows and stuff. So we're like, 'We'll go. For sure. Sounds like a good time.'"