The Madison musician’s solo-project-turned-band Oedipus Tex plays a farewell show on June 9 at Mickey’s Tavern.
The first time I saw Eric Caldera’s singer-songwriter project, Oedipus Tex, it just didn’t connect. This was probably about 2008, so I was already a fan of Caldera’s instrumental band, El Valiente, but his solo-acoustic set at Nottingham Co-op came off as incredibly timid and anxious, as if Caldera couldn’t open up enough to let the audience in on his songs and just ended up singing faintly to himself. Maybe it wasn’t my thing, or maybe it was just an off night. In any case, sometimes the projects that take a few tries to win you over end up being all the more rewarding for that.
“I’m painfully shy sometimes, so I think I was even more painfully shy then, and I think I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with writing songs,” Caldera says. But now, as Caldera gets ready to move from Madison to L.A. and Oedipus Tex prepares to play a farewell show on Friday, June 9 at Mickey’s Tavern, the project is much harder to dismiss.
In 2012, Caldera released an album called Borracho Corazon, and Oedipus Tex began to flower into a more assured, still understated, project with a full band behind it. The album included duets with then-Phox singer Monica Martin, guitar by Karl Christenson (Cribshitter, Icarus Himself), and the El Valiente rhythm section of drummer Joe Bernstein and bassist Kris Hansen.
Most importantly, the album finally gave people a sense of what was going on in there, and it turned out to range from cutting sadness to swaggering humor. The album’s first two tracks encapsulate a lot of that range. On “Leave Room,” Caldera sings in his hushed, scratchy voice about a relationship that’s becoming cramped and stagnant: “Between the knick-knacks in your room / There ain’t a space to fuckin’ move.” On “Yonder,” a he offers a goofily cocky introduction to what he’s all about, throwing out profanities that sound comically gratuitous against a rather somber instrumental backdrop: “Hey I’m master in all things numerical / And I’m coming out your fuckin’ stereo.” That said, the humor didn’t intrude on the sincerity and vulnerability of the songs.
One reason Borracho Corazon might have been a turning point is that collaboration made Caldera a bit more comfortable with giving up some control and letting others shape the songs. Christenson initially asked if he could record Caldera in his home studio, but pretty soon ended up throwing in arrangement ideas, playing his own baritone-guitar parts and writing drum patterns that Bernstein later recorded. (Full disclosure: Christenson and I both work at Wisconsin Public Radio.) This process ended up steering Caldera way from his initial plan of just making a short EP with very sparse instrumentation, in the mold of Cat Power’s 2000 release The Covers Record.
“There were some songs that I just kind of handed to Karl, really bone-dry two-track demo things, and then he had an idea and then we re-recorded them, and then I ended up being really happy with them,” Caldera says. “If you approach it from a place of insecurity, you can kind of do yourself a disservice, I think, when you’re producing or engineering your own stuff. But handing it to Karl and having him shoot a mix back, but he would do things I wouldn’t do…it just helps you get out of your own head in a way.”
Caldera grew up in San Antonio and started Oedipus Tex in 2003 while earning his undergrad degree in biology at UT-Austin. Both El Valiente and Oedipus Tex have an unmistakably Southwestern cosmic-country influence, though in the latter that’s more balanced with the influence of smart-assed ’90s indie rock—the band occasionally throws Guided By Voices covers into its live sets and has even played a few Pavement tribute sets over the years.
Caldera came to UW-Madison to pursue graduate work in entomology, focusing on the behaviors of fungus-growing ants. (El Valiente’s 2009 album Daceton is named after a genus of ants found in South America.) Caldera actually dropped out of grad school for a few years, while dealing with a divorce and other personal troubles, but it was during that time that Oedipus Tex started to transform into a fleshed-out band. He eventually resumed his graduate studies, and this spring he completed his PhD.
The past few years have brought a lot of other changes. Oedipus Tex released a 2015 EP, Silver Lion, which added multi-instrumentalist Nathan Tredinnick to the lineup. Caldera joined Christenson’s brilliantly absurd pop project, Cribshitter, playing lead guitar in their live sets and contributing a nerdy rap to the band’s 2015 album, Acapulco: “Some say when he gets busy thinkin’/ He turns into a Mexican Abraham Lincoln/ Self-taught, self-bought/ And when he’s lacing up the high tops/ He’s known to keep the strings taut.” In April 2016, El Valiente played their final show, deciding to wrap up their 10-year run neatly as Caldera realized he’d eventually be moving away.
Even though Caldera and Bernstein still play together in Oedipus Tex, they’ve resisted the temptation to reunite El Valiente over the past year. “I miss it,” Caldera says “Sometimes at some of the Tex shows, we’ve done some noodling, like El Valiente-esque stuff.”
Silver Lion is the only thing Oedipus Tex has released since Borracho Corazon—plans for an Oedipus/El Valiente 7-inch fizzled a couple years back—but it boasts plenty of strong moments of its own. The speedy country shuffle of opening track “Ground All Gone” underlies an aching lyric about uncertainty and loneliness—”You say you can’t stand alone/ ‘Cause your ground’s all gone.” On the title track, Caldera unpacks some of his conflicting feelings about Madison, with a line that references the police shootings of Paul Heenan and Tony Robinson: “Songwriters and dark-skinned boys buying mistakes with their lives.”
Caldera also thinks about that mix of emotions as he gets ready to head to L.A., where his wife will be pursuing a fellowship at UCLA and he’ll be applying for jobs and pursuing music, including more solo material and maybe a new instrumental band.
“There’s optimism in moving forward but there’s also some regret and weirdness too, so I think I feel that also with my relationship with Madison,” he says. “I’ve had successes here, I came here to go to grad school, I have a beautiful wife, but I got divorced here, I dropped out of grad school here.”
Oedipus Tex will be playing a full-band set at the farewell show. Caldera says the band’s not really sitting on any new or unreleased music right now, but he’s especially looking forward to playing “Yonder” and “Ground All Gone,” songs he says still resonate with him even though he wrote them both years ago. The show also includes a set from country-rock outfit The Apologists and the first live appearance in a while from fellow Madison band Building On Buildings, who don’t necessarily sound much like Oedipus Tex, but share Caldera’s knack for bittersweet songwriting. It’s a little strange to think that this will be Caldera’s second farewell show in two years, but after making two distinctive musical contributions to Madison, it makes sense to give each one its own sendoff.