Artist of the Month: Vapor Caves serve up sensual club jams with a side of silly
Andrew Thaggard and Yadira Brown, the musical couple behind Vapor Caves, couldn’t just plan an ordinary release party for their debut album, “Feel Yourself.” They built the boogie-funk project around slinky club grooves that drip with honeyed soul, and from the time they debuted it in early 2018, they’ve been crafting a farcical band mythology featuring a cast of slapstick characters who pop up in song interludes and videos.
In late October, they hosted the “Feel Yourself Awards,” an album drop celebration reimagined as a variety show that mixed music, comedy and wacky antics while lightly trolling the local awards scene.
In between tracks from the album, the duo honored some of their fictional homies with fake accolades. They handed out awards for “Viral Sad Boy Rap Artist” and “Misogynist Slow Jam.” The latter, they decided, was a banishment rather than an award.
To kick off the evening, celebrity guests walked a paper red carpet that immediately ripped. A roaming saxophonist bombarded private conversations with sensuous solos, and a magician, whose services Thaggard acquired via Craigslist at the last minute, made multiple doves disappear.
“He turned them into fire and then back into doves,” Thaggard said in mid-November at the couple’s hideaway bungalow in East Austin.
“And they were fine,” Brown added quickly.
No doves were harmed during the release party, but they helped infuse the event with the kind of whimsical levity that defines the duo’s work. The album intersperses upbeat dance numbers like “Hurry Up and Wait” and “Endless Summer” with humorous skits, including an ad for “Olfktol,” a fictional pharmaceutical upper with a rapid-fire list of ominous side effects like “nasal dandruff” and “anal swelling.”
“Taking ourselves less seriously has just been the most wonderful thing, because then the crowd can let go a little bit,” Thaggard said.
They perform several dance numbers in their sets. In a move modeled on the classic choreography from Paula Abdul’s 1988 video for “Cold Hearted,” Thaggard slides through Brown’s legs only to be pushed back, rejected, on the ‘80s electro-funk cover “Bitch to the Boys.”
The humor helps them tackle tough issues with a light touch. “Bitch to the Boys” is a Shakatak song from 1982, a dance-floor banger with no verses, just a hook: “She’s such a bitch to the boys/She acts it up when they call/She’s such a bitch to the boys/She plays around with them all.”
The Vapor Caves’ remake is an ode to female empowerment.
“I just kind of, like, imagined a really strong, confident, badass bitch who’s really just not taking any (expletive) from these dudes out here acting really stupid and disrespectful,” Brown said.
The track includes a skit that they act out on stage. Thaggard “calls” Brown in character, acting like “the worst guy.”
“He’s feeling himself in this disgusting way,” Thaggard said with a laugh. “He’s got this car that should impress you. He’s gonna get you a Zima. He’s got a CD player, which in the era of what we’re making is cutting-edge.”
Brown cuts him off. Hangs up on him. She sends a clear message: “Down with these jerks,” Thaggard said.
“It’s bookended by some very clear words — usually, depending on the show — about consent about people respecting each other,” Brown said.
But it’s not a heavy conversation. “It’s fun, it’s casual, you don’t have to be all scared, just, you know, step it up, let’s heal some (expletive),” she said.
Brown and Thaggard, who DJs as Boombaptist, were introduced via text message by a mutual friend who suggested they work together almost a decade ago.
“We were like, ‘OK, awkward,’ because we had never met,” Brown said. She listened to his work and liked it. They expressed mutual admiration via text, “and then we didn’t talk for, like, three years,” Brown said with a laugh.
“My side of the story is that I’ve been in love with her from the very beginning,” Thaggard said. “I was with somebody when I moved to Austin, and I always saw her through mutual friends, and I was like, ‘Well, this is terrible for me, because, like, that’s the person I should be with, obviously.’”
They began working together in summer 2013, when Thaggard was working at Dub Academy and Brown’s vocal harmony outfit, Keeper, did a remix contest with the DJ training school. Thaggard was tasked to work with the group on the tracks and ended up producing the first two Keeper singles.
By this point, they were both single and they began dancing around the idea of a relationship.
“A studio romance is what they call it,” Thaggard said.
For the first few tracks they collaborated on, Brown gave him vocals she had written to a drum track and Thaggard created beats around them. It was an unusual work process for Thaggard, who was used to laying vocals on top of the beats.
“My experience doing stuff with Yadira is, like, definitely outside of my comfort zone,” he said. He was used to producing hip-hop.
“Hip-hop is really simple. You do a four-bar loop of something someone could rap to and then you do a chorus and that’s it,” he said “And Yadira, because of her songwriting style, kind of challenged me even back then. So it’s been a nice little pivot for me stylistically, working with her. And I love her, too. Which makes it easier.”
In 2016, after the couple had been living together and individually creating music in their own studios, Thaggard gave a flash drive of beats he’d created and a new microphone to Brown for Christmas.
“It was kind of just like this open door to make stuff to all these beats I’d heard of his,” Brown said. Three Vapor Caves songs, including the wistful love lament “Who Are You?” came from that collection.
“All his stuff is really soulful, which is awesome and definitely more up-tempo,” Brown said. “I had been in kind of sexy down-tempo world for a while, but I have a deep love for dance music. I feel like we sort of bridge a gap of both of those things. There’s still a little Portishead. There’s a little trip-hop in there.”
After a lifetime spent producing songs at 90 beats per minute, the classic hip-hop tempo, Thaggard began creating faster tracks.
“It’s wild when you add a few BPMs to the track, people start dancing, and it’s just the most wonderful gratifying feeling, because it is an exchange,” Thaggard said.
With no money or marketing power behind the music and no label, the group turned to humor as a way to cut through the noise and reach people. When music director Matt “FX” Feldman selected their track “The Chase” for the Comedy Central series “Broad City,” they created a teaser commercial featuring “Mr. Grammy,” a stereotypical Hollywood producer with gold chains, a wide collar and mountain of cocaine on his desk, to promote their debut single.
For the deceptively breezy gentrification jam “Endless Summer,” they made a real estate spoof commercial that presented a “most extreme cartoon version” of the affordable housing crisis that is pushing many creatives out of the city. Dressed in city slicker blazers, the shifty agent versions of Brown and Thaggard offered a modern home in “newly gentrified East Austin” for $19 million and a shack 50 miles out of town for $2.5 million. To get people to engage with the track, they trolled their friends and followers, saying a massive real estate company stole their song. Friends sincerely chimed in with legal advice. The next day, they released the song, rolled together with the commercial.
“Half the people were really upset that we had duped them. The other half were like, ‘Thank you for getting us to actually care about the cause that was your song,’” Thaggard said.
“Feel Yourself” closes with an aspirational uplift jam, “Be The Light,” a song about finding your own strength that Brown describes as “kind of anthemic, a message to get you through something.”
To promote that track, Thaggard donned a wig and became Wally Woolworth, candle-maker, another over-the-top persona. The group now sells a Wally Woolworth candle alongside a “Be the Light” prayer candle with an image of Thaggard and Brown. They also have a deck of trading cards featuring all of the ridiculous characters who show up in Vapor Caves’ work.
The strong merch game helped the duo to break even on their maiden tour in November, a southeastern jaunt that culminated in a performance at Pork Festival in Miami.
They sold out of vinyl copies of the album and posted solid sales of the other Vapor Caves accessories.
It’s further evidence that packaging their tracks with ample humor is a solid strategy for the crew.
“We’re like, well, let’s just have the most fun we can possibly have and do something super silly,” Brown said. “And, if anything, you’ll get a good laugh and that will stick with you, the feeling of being happy.”
“There will come a time when we maybe have to take it a little more seriously, but for now, this is how we’re going to ride it out,” Thaggard said.
Members: Yadira Brown (vocals), BoomBaptist aka Andrew Thaggard (production/keys/vocals), Sam Wood (drums)
Current Release: “Feel Yourself“
Upcoming shows: Jan. 3, Empire Control Room & Garage