Of the two hours spent talking with former Icarus Line stalwart Joe Cardamone, a substantial stretch of that time was devoted to talk of death. From coyotes snatching small dogs right from under their owner’s noses in California’s San Fernando Valley, to high school band drummers tripping on acid in the Sonoran desert and only succumbing to car wreck injuries after a protracted hour of suffering at the side of the road. “I’ve been around a lot of people who’ve died... I’ve gone to too many funerals in my life already.”
But perhaps the most impactful death in recent times for Cardamone was that of the band he was at the helm of for over 17 years.
“Whilst I was doing All Things under Heaven I knew I didn’t want to do the band anymore. It was over. It wasn’t like ‘Oh I don’t like this record’ or anything like that, I actually think it’s probably the best thing we ever did.” He adds: “The fucked up thing is I did the record— it’s probably the least commercially viable thing in the entire canon— and then Sony offers us a deal for it...which was just like ‘what planets are these people on?’ I don’t think there’s one song that has a verse-chorus structure – it’s fucked. It sounds like Sun-Ra and Black Flag just thrown in a garbage can. And then they wanted to put us on tour. That was pretty much the death knoll.”
The scheduled tour in question was a support slot on the now notorious Scott Weiland tour. “At this point, I’m like ‘oh my god, is this my life? I wanna kill myself because we’re gonna go on tour with Scott Weiland. How embarrassing, you know? This is my worst nightmare and I’m pretty sure my career’s over.’ That’s how I felt. I didn’t even promote one show.”
With an inability to refuse any opportunities that came his way due to his scant upbringing where saving up to buy a busted $50 guitar at a yard sale across the street seemed extravagant, Cardamone joined the tour. “[Weiland’s band members] started telling me stories about him taking toilet paper and getting it wet and covering the TV at night while everyone’s asleep saying ‘they’re trying to film me’... it’s like this guy should not be on tour, he should be in a fucking hospital. Apparently, he was in debt and people were just trying to make money off of him too – just horrible.”
Cardamone’s attuned senses surrounding death were triggered by Weiland’s suspect behaviour and he began to formulate an exit strategy. “I talked to [Weiland] outside and he couldn’t even talk. He was just standing in front of me and he kept going ‘yeeeeaaah yeeeaaaaah’. And he wasn’t trying to be a weirdo that’s just all he could do. That was a hard moment for me. I called the manager the next day and I said ‘if this fucking guy dies in the middle of nowhere what happens to us? Are we insured? Do we get anything?’ And he’s like ‘no you’re fucked; you just have to get everyone back home... I wouldn’t blame you if you drop off the tour today.’ After the conversation I had with him I knew... I have known so many people that have died, so I kind of have a weird sense about it and I just knew. I was like ‘this guy will be dead on this tour.’”
Weiland was found dead on his tour bus on December 3, 2015, in Bloomington, Minnesota before he and his band The Wildabouts were scheduled to go on stage. The Icarus Line had bowed out a month before Weiland’s death after the last west coast show in Anaheim. “We did this show in Anaheim at the House of Blues by Disney. It wasn’t even that bad but while I’m playing I was hating it and that was bad... I’m not making a shitload of money; the only thing I get is being up there. If it’s not exhilarating and it’s not giving what the fuck I came here for there is no reason... I look at Ben my drummer and he has a similar look. And we’re having negative vibes and just hating it and almost each other.”
The band held a fateful final meeting the day before the tour was due to leave the California area. “That was the last time we spoke about the band. That was the last day I ever considered the Icarus Line as a project. It was a hard day. Not because I didn’t want it to be over but just because I’ve been doing it for so long. Honestly, it was comfort zone shit. You get stuck in something; it can be dysfunctional, shitty, and not good for your life at all. But you’re just used to it. I kind of had a meltdown [after that]. Just because it was the end of a 17-year long project that I knew I took too far. The only thing that tells me I didn’t go too far is that I did All Things Under Heaven. That record’s sick.”
Followers of The Icarus Line will know that the band had an ever-revolving door policy on band members. Despite having various iterations, a long-serving veteran was guitarist Alvin DeGuzman. “The fact that Alvin wasn’t there too, that solidified it. Once he got sick he called me from the hospital at 11 at night. He woke up paralysed from the waist down; his roommate pushed him on a fucking office chair and lifted him into a car to get to the hospital. And they tell us they found a mass on his spine and he’s got cancer and it’s bad. I think I probably held onto the group for a while longer than I would have because of him and Ben. Because it was like these guys get a kick out of this thing.” Alvin developed mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer that has spread to his liver, lungs, and bones. Hoping to treat him with a new version of genetic medicine his family have set up a GoFundMe page to cover the cost of medical bills. It raised over $15,000 in 24 hours.
Another contributing factor that led to Cardamone clinging on to a slowly sinking ship was his need to use the band as a way to connect to a world he felt alienated in. “I’m not like a normal person where I can just go golfing with people. So this is a way for me to stay friends with people— that’s all music’s ever been for me... It’s a way for me to relate to other people because before that I just got into fights and trouble. So I guess the prospect of not having that is a scary one to me because I haven’t been without some sort of plan since I was fucking 16 and I’m a 38-year-old man. So that’s why I held onto that shit for so long.”
After devoting 17 years of literal blood, sweat, and tears to a band only to have that suddenly ripped out from under him, Cardamone, like an untrained magician performing the tablecloth trick, scrambled to keep the pieces in place and intact. “I had a month of [being] pretty freaked out. And I started jamming with people, and no matter who I put in the room it’s still sounding like the fucking Icarus Line. I was like ‘I did it, it’s done, there’s no reason to do this’. And I probably should have been doing something different 10 years ago. But for this whole time, like the preceding years, I was making hip-hop beats at home.”
The year 2016 will forever go down in the annals of infamy after the music world lost heavyweights such as the mononymous Prince, Cohen, and Bowie. Lauded by many musicians as crucial in their very conception, Cardamone was no exception: “David Bowie died... That’s what started what I’m doing now. He died and the next day I went to the studio and I started thumbing through some beats I had made and I was like ‘fuck it, I’m gonna sing on one of these things and just see what the fuck happens’. And then I listened to it back really loud and I was like ‘maybe I can do this’. As soon as my brain shifts into ‘this is how it goes’, boom, I’m an animal. All the pieces just fall.”
Whilst not a new concept, visual albums have been considered de rigueur in the R&B/pop world since Beyoncé released Lemonade as an hour-long film on HBO last April followed by Frank Ocean releasing Endless on Apple Music in August of the same year. Since then artists as diverse as Tove Lo and Nick Cave have tried their hand at the visual art form as accompaniment. The first piece released as part of Cardamone’s solo project was a film titled Holy War which features heavy occult symbolism. “I have 40 songs. The film I made was just as integral a portion to the entry of what I’m doing as any of the songs. That’s the main plan, to probably focus on doing films just as much as the music because it kind of explains the story of what I’m trying to do better than any of the songs do in a certain aspect. All I know is every time I make film people are interested in the music. If I don’t make a film then there’s no gateway drug.”
In Greek mythology, it is claimed that a phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion before obtaining new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. The first film clip released via Cardamone’s website shows him dragging a cross engulfed in flames before dropping it a short distance later and passing out. Striking imagery when considering the cross as The Icarus Line in the idiom ‘everybody has their cross to bear’. From death comes rebirth for the living – and like a phoenix out of the ashes, Cardamone has reinvented himself.
“I’ve already been writing the next [film clip]. And I didn’t really write that [first clip]. I’m just moving at the speed of thought but the next one I’m writing. And it’s got like babies walking down the middle of the street. It let me know I could do it. I mean that’s really what it was about like ‘oh I can do this fucking shit’ and then that’s kind of what this [European tour] has been about like ‘can I do a show?’”
Thus far Cardamone has performed four live shows, the first in Milan, “...nobody speaks English so if it sucks I won’t understand them talking to me on the internet.” The second was Berlin, “...same deal.” And the others in London: “I threw London after that because basically I knew people would show up and I knew I would have to do it. I couldn’t puss out. It made it real.” He adds, “These songs are not easy for me to sing. It’s so melodic compared to everything else I’ve ever done. To be honest, it’s very challenging and I was extremely nervous about singing these songs because some of the stuff is almost R&B, even though it’s not R&B, but it is me doing R&B so it’s kind of scary.”
All of the shows were free entry and all featured Cardamone accompanied only by a projector loaded with clips he’d been working on with various collaborators. “Not having a band to maintain opened my mind up to be able to do other things that I just never had time to because I’m negotiating fucking relationships with people. And now I can collaborate with people it’s not a big deal and I’ve been able to pull in a lot of cool visual collaborators. I’ve discovered this whole sect of Hungarian art films that I had no idea about because of this one guy, we’re working together and he’s turning me onto shit. It’s one of the best moments of my life for creativity, let’s put it that way.”
Perhaps the most hard-hitting clip of Cardamone’s live set features found footage of a drone’s flight around the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. “It doesn’t even look real, it looks like a fucking miniature that someone made but that’s real and people still live there.” When questioned on the importance of involving such a clip as part of his live performance Cardamone said: “Yeah I mean I’m not a political activist, not like other people are. The song has nothing to do with [Aleppo] but it does now. The mood is the same so it’s ok. It’s so beautiful and kind of stunning that I don’t really feel it’s exploiting it either. If I didn’t think it was [right] I wouldn’t do it. It became instantly one art piece. It’s one of those things where it’s juxtaposition and it’s right and it will always be right. Why aren’t people doing shit like this?”
On the suggestion that the current cultural impasse bred out of fear of saying the wrong thing might be a factor in why other artists might be withholding, he retorts: “The wrong thing is saying nothing and that’s basically what everybody does. It’s just distraction...music for distraction...”
So how does a punk kid from “the last rock n’ roll gang” emerge from the proverbial flames to reinvent himself as an R&B artist – is it just as easy as simply disassociating himself from a scene that he has spent the last 17 years or more establishing himself in? “I would like to integrate less rock venues. I would like to do stuff with fashion houses. I’m dealing with a flexibility I’ve never had before. I can go anywhere I want as long as I can trick somebody into buying me a plane ticket.”
This means alienating himself from the traditional methods that go into making a rock band happen including every aspect he has spent years perfecting but this doesn’t seem to faze Cardamone. “Booking agents only know what they know. They know rock clubs. That’s just not that interesting to me. I don’t fucking care man. Look, I don’t care about bands anymore. I just don’t. I think it’s fucking retro. It’s just an antiquated configuration and that’s cool and I understand that people enjoy seeing it, but to me, I’ve never been interested in doing any of this shit unless I feel like I’m fucking peeling the thing forward a little bit, even if I’m not but I feel like I am that’s good enough for me.”
The idea of ‘rock’n’roll tour’ as glamorous, perpetual blowout is a long-standing myth that has proven hard to shake. The misty-eyed wistfulness that rookies just cutting their teeth seem to hold for the job has leant it a unicorn-like status; something to aspire to and strive for, but for Cardamone it runs deeper than just superficial outward appearances. “I wanna enjoy my life. I don’t care about getting rich. I wanna see cities, I want to actually experience being in those fucking cities. All this stuff that you think you’re doing when you get in a band; you’re not doing any of that. Maybe you get lucky and you go see a landmark. Rock tour is a soul crusher. It just lets you know what is totally dead and wrong with rock music. How many rock shows have I been to? I’m just over it. You’ve seen a million shows and at a certain point it’s like ‘fuck I’ve seen this man’. You just look at it and you’re just like ‘this is so fucking safe, formulaic and by the numbers every fucking night’. As soon as it becomes about the [audience] you’re not doing anything, you’re in the service industry bro, why don’t you go work in McDonalds?”
But with the biggest rock bands today exhibiting exactly that well-rehearsed patter night after night and selling out shows off the back of it, how does an artist get out from under this particular behemoth? “You’re either part of the problem or you’re not, that’s all there is to it. I mean I’m a very hard line individual obviously, that’s how I’ve always believed and it’s what I still believe. That’s why I broke my band up ... The world deserves more right now and needs it. I got a panic attack when I saw Imagine Dragons. Because I was like ‘is this what people like’?”
A full-length, as-yet-unreleased film, titled The Icarus Line Must Die, is described on its IMDb page as “...a dramatic narrative feature set against the backdrop of the current LA music scene. The film tracks Joe Cardamone, frontman of The Icarus Line, as he navigates his way through the ups and downs of the modern music landscape.” The film combines clips of performance from the last iteration of The Icarus Line, car rides with a manic Ariel Pink as passenger and conversations with Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy about David Icke’s theory of British royalty as lizard people. The movie casts a magnifying lens on a day in the life of Joe Cardamone. “The film is done but I’m not in charge. I didn’t direct it. I helped write it and I’m starring in it. But it’s a cool movie; Ariel Pink plays Aaron North [former The Icarus Line guitarist]... He’s great. I didn’t really tell him who he was playing but he knew.”
A scene in Cardamone’s Burbank studio Valley Recording Company flashes across the screen containing Ariel Pink stumbling around staring at various pedals strewn across the tracking room floor. “This is a real situation that happened with Aaron, he showed up to the studio and we all sat there for three hours while he tried to plug in pedals. It was a disaster. It was the last time I ever saw the dude.”
In 2013 North conducted an interview with Spin magazine in which he expressed his frustrations at being misunderstood due to mental illness. Cardamone is less than sympathetic to his former band mate’s plight, saying about the article: “That was garbage. That was just a lie. Aaron trying to say he’s living in a fucking car. He’s living at his mom’s house. He’s just being a fronting little bitch. Aaron’s always been a fucking drama queen.”
There’s a belief that from great suffering comes great art. This view is explored in a book (using the lives of Picasso and Winehouse as examples) on the tortured artist’s psyche and the links to creativity. Cardamone concurs stating “I always have to have these moments of disaster in my life.” A long-term friend of Cardamone’s is Annie Hardy, previously of Giant Drag, who has had more than her fair share of moments of disaster in her life in recent times after losing her son and her partner in short succession. “Last year was insane with Annie and her baby. It was SIDS or something like that: who the fuck knows what that is. I think it’s just a general blanket term for ‘something’s gone wrong’... I couldn’t even understand it, it was just too crazy. I couldn’t understand how she survived.”
Cardamone booked out his studio for Hardy to work on an album which became the emotionally-charged Rules, out for release on 7 April. “I don’t know if she’s dealt with it all. I don’t think she has. How do you ever deal with something that catastrophic? Either you keep going or you die. I still don’t know how she just continues on in life and I think it’s hard for her but I think being able to do music again has helped a little bit. It gives her a focus and her record is getting attention... It’s a powerful record.”
There is another belief that art can act as therapy. Pioneered by Alain de Botton, he proposes that “...the belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential.” On Rules Hardy has seemingly treated the process of recording as a form of therapy and the incidental pathos that stemmed from the sessions is markedly present on the finished album. "Writing these songs saved me," she told LA Weekly.
Cardamone said of Rules’ lyrical content: “Almost all of [Annie’s record] apart from the two songs I kind of helped co-write were about the death of her baby. And she’s so sardonic it’s insane because she has a song where the lyrics are ‘I want my baby back and if I can’t have him I don’t want you’ – to her current boyfriend. She’s hardcore. It’s the kind of shit where you’re just like ‘oh my god dude, are you really saying this out loud?’ But she is. She doesn’t give a fuck about anything. I think it’s probably too much for a lot of people to even hear the stuff she sings about.”
Another poignant clip featured in the final cut of The Icarus Line Must Die features Hardy singing ‘Mockingbird’, one of the more heart-wrenchingly tender songs on her album; Cardamone said of recording such a song “She’d get halfway through it and be weeping. I’ve never worked on anything like that. I’m sure maybe a lot of people probably haven’t. I’d say 95% of the lead vocals on it are the live ones from that – no overdubs, no nothing. She just sat down like she’s fucking Neil Young or something... As she’s singing this I start having tears in my eyes because she just has that effect on me honestly, especially with certain songs. And I’m embarrassed about it, like ‘oh my god they’re filming’ and then I turn around and everybody else is wiping tears out of their eyes.”
In light of the band’s recent demise, the name The Icarus Line seems all the more fitting: a self-fulfilling prophecy of what was always destined to come. Ovid, in his magnum opus Metamorphoses, retells the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus where after being observed and praised by the average layman on the ground for doing what no other mortal men could do, states:
"... All this adventurous flying went to Icarus' head. He ceased to follow his leader; he'd fallen in love with the sky..."
In this analogy Cardamone is both father and son; leader and follower; both level-headed pace-setter and unbridled lover of the sky.
The ancient tale warns of the dangers of both complacency and hubris. And with The Icarus Line so often equated with the latter due to their well-documented antics (the band also once spray painted ‘$uckin’dick$’ onto the side of The Strokes tour bus), it wasn’t a stretch to imagine them, like a match dipped in lighter fluid, burning out just as they got started.
But Cardamone's drive and cockroach-like tenacity forged from his punk roots forced them onward as he transmuted from Icarus to become Daedalus, the father, and symbolically the creator. The band's great orchestrator was always Cardamone. He became the self-appointed leader, often writing and composing every aspect of the musical output, and so it is only fitting that The Icarus Line's story drew to a close this way, just before the complacency set in. And, as the phoenix can attest, new wings sprout from the ashes left behind.
Photo Credit: Tom Bronowski