Standing by the exit of the Bar Next Door, Lucas Cates looks out at the twilight horizon and talks earnestly to his bandmates. They've been on the road for five weeks, and the regulars at this Olin Avenue tavern are happy to welcome them back. This is the place, after all, where they've played most Thursday nights for the past three years.
But it's not so easy to see that Cates is happy to be back. His mom comes by and he gives her a hug, but when we sit down to talk under the glow of a TV screen that's projecting the day's sports scores, he brims with restlessness. "You've got to get out of here [Madison] to become what you want, and only a handful of bands try to do that," says Cates. "Exposure is huge, and it doesn't happen here."
An urgent drive to explore and discover pervades his new album, All the Pieces. It's a theme that begins with the chorus of the lead track, "The Windmill": "The whole world wants to learn if the windmill is life / Then the windmill has to turn tonight." After talking to Cates, I found these lyrics felt like a metaphor the next time I heard them. Music was the windmill. Cates was the world.
In a jacket, a baseball cap and wispy bangs, Cates was the exception to the rule of local musician interviews. He talked about the business of music more than the art of it. "We have a broad audience, but we've found that the listeners who range in age from 18 to about 28 have been the hardest group for us to grab," he says.
He says the stylistic changes that have come with his second album are, in part, an attempt to connect with that demographic. "We've stepped away from mellow pop," he says. "Some elements of the new record still have that adult alternative vibe, but this is much more of a rock record."
Cates grew up in Madison and graduated from West High School in 1999. He learned to play guitar while attending Plymouth State College in New Hampshire. His songwriting efforts commenced after he transferred to Central Michigan, where he completed a degree in geography.
"I moved back to Madison in 2004 and started playing at some open mikes," says Cates. That's how he met Robert J., the Madison country-rock artist who took Cates under his wing and helped put out his first record, Contradictory. Cates' debut was catchy and easygoing pop-rock marked by sleek production. His sensitive-guy approach to songwriting drew comparisons to John Mayer.
With All the Pieces, Cates has moved on to songs and moods that are more complex. The rock chord progressions on "The Windmill" are as heavy and earnest as the lyrics. Cates uses transitions in pitch and volume to shift his perspectives from reflection to action.
Another song that stands in stark contrast to the lighthearted tracks of Contradictory is the power-rock song "Through." The verses swell with anger. The chorus is a cathartic release built around a swooning falsetto.
The strongest single on the new disc is a deeply felt love song called "Ebb and Flow." On this song, rising strings recall a bittersweet memory of a lost love, and it haunts like nothing else on this disc.
There's an irony to Cates' view of his own music and the impact he perceives it having on his audiences. "I'm not full of angst," says Cates, describing the possible missing ingredient that might be keeping his music from reaching a larger young-adult audience.
Maybe he's not full of angst in the same way Kurt Cobain was. But there's angst in his restlessness to take his music to the next level, and that was palpable at the Bar Next Door last Thursday night.
For sure, Cates' songwriting is moving in the right direction. (Indeed, a flaw in Cates' recording is its overpolished production, which is unnecessary given the strength of the songs.) His music is growing less predictable and more authentic. And those are all the pieces he needs to find the success he wants.