Most people know Eric Caldera as a Ph.D. student in the evolutionary biology program at UW-Madison or as the guitarist in the instrumental post-rock trio El Valiente, which was voted Madison's Favorite New Band of 2008. They don't know that he can likewise sing, though. In fact, Caldera started making music through his one-man singer-songwriter act Oedipus Tex before getting going with the band.
Both El Valiente and Oedipus Tex evoke a certain type of desert loneliness with shimmering finger-picked guitar lines and tragic melodies that swell and recede, a sound equally fitting for a cowboy at a campfire and an indie rocker at a dive bar. While a number of forces have conspired to create this sound, it has much to do with Caldera's upbringing in Texas.
"Growing up in San Antonio, everyone my age was listening to gangster rap and everyone else mostly listened to Tejano music," he says. "I'm not really sure how what I do came about."
One theory is that Caldera managed to absorb a bit of the latter and weave it into a patchwork of old-school country, folk and '90s indie rock. This process emerged as Caldera taught himself to play the guitar.
"When I turned 13 years old, I put it in my head that I wanted to play the guitar and start a rock band," he explains. "I saved my lunch money for a couple months and bought a crappy electric guitar at the pawnshop by my house for $40. That was pretty much it: I never put the thing down."
Oedipus Tex came about when Caldera, smitten with wanderlust, found himself without a permanent address.
"I was traveling a lot and not really in a place to start a new band. I went around to some open mikes in Austin, where I was living at the time, and got some positive feedback, so I decided to start playing out as Oedipus Tex," he recalls.
Caldera soon went to South Africa as part of a study-abroad program through the University of Texas at Austin, his undergraduate alma mater. During breaks from work at a field research station, he often retreated to the bathroom, not to use the facilities or work a crossword puzzle, but to play his guitar.
"It had great acoustics, so I often hung out in there, playing and writing [music]," he says.
The time in the lavatory paid off, resulting in a track called "Tropic Of Capricorn" and an entire self-titled CD that was released in 2004.
While the songs on the CD range from pop-leaning indie a la Andrew Bird to dreamy, Nick Drake-style folk rock, "Tropic Of Capricorn" is a bit more gravelly and world weary.
The lyrics struggle between expressions of hope and longing and feelings of powerlessness. The line "I wish I could help you, but ain't nothing I can do" sounds like a quip from a lovers' quarrel, while the chorus, "You're all I've had, and you don't even know," set to a heartbreaking melodic surge, shows a songwriter who's vulnerable and broken as well.
An MP3 of "Tropic Of Capricorn" is available in the related downloads at right. More songs by the act can be listened to on its MySpace page. Oedipus Tex performs with Icarus Himself and Kaslo Band at Cafe Montmartre on Tuesday, December 9, while El Valiente hits the stage for a show at The Frequency on Friday, December 12.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.