Sitting on a leather couch in a stark waiting room overlooking Radio Shack at a strip mall on Vermont Avenue, I can’t stop stroking my mustache. I’ve only worn a fake mustache once before and it ended in a bar fight.
Sporting a ’stache of her own, and a bulletproof vest, Cate Le Bon sits beside me as we prepare to search the apartment of a Soviet spy. We have one hour to find evidence of his secret identity using hidden clues to solve puzzles, crack safes and open trap doors. The heavily accented man handing us a walkie-talkie says that for teams of two in this Maze Room, there is a 4 percent success rate.
“Apologies if I, uh, suck at this,” Le Bon says.
Something about Cate Le Bon assured me she would not suck at all, that she was just the right person to bring to an escape room. The Welsh musician has a new album, Crab Day, on Drag City Records, and we came here to explore the puzzle quality of her music — angular guitar lines and lyrics like riddles — while pretending we’re CIA agents.
Finding new ways to express familiar ideas, going beyond “love hurts,” that’s what Cate Le Bon does beautifully: “Love is not love, when it’s a coathanger, borrowed line or passenger” (“Love Is Not Love”); “I’m a body of dreams for you/Ah, I’m a dirty attic” (“I’m a Dirty Attic”).
“I’ve never been particularly direct when I’m writing songs,” she says. “It is like puzzles. I was reading about symbolism, your subconscious and dreams. Sometimes you know to trust that what appears to be nonsense actually has a lot of symbolism. Subconscious things come through, fears about life and abandonment. I think sense and nonsense are always propping each other up anyway.”
We enter the “apartment” and embrace the nonsense that will make this game fun. It’s 1973. “Moon River” plays on a record player. We’re surrounded by dizzying, orange-patterned wallpaper. Unsure where to begin, we open cabinets, look in the trash.
“He doesn’t fold his napkins,” I observe.
“What an asshole,” says Le Bon.
She cusses a lot, in a gentle way, the way someone would ponderingly say “hmm,” but instead she says “shit bags” or “fuuuck.”
Le Bon wrote Crab Day, her fourth album, after touring as Drinks with Tim Presley from White Fence. The playful, abstract spirit of that project was still fresh when she entered the studio; she wrote and recorded her new songs in just three weeks.
“The process of doing Drinks was instrumental to Crab Day sounding the way it sounds. Everything was considered on the record but also everything was permitted, allowing ourselves to be spontaneous if it felt right.”
With the support of Banana, an experimental collective she’s part of with co-producer Josiah Steinbrick, Josh Klinghoffer, Stephen Black, Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) and H. Hawkline, Le Bon got weird in the studio, using unusual and sometimes made-up guitar scales that still fit together despite their strange shapes.
I ask her about the disjointed guitar at the end of “What’s Not Mine.” “The guitar part that sounds like a bee in a tin?” she replies. “That’s me.”
“Where does that come from?”
“I just can’t play guitar any other way. I’m not a very technical player, so I make up for it with execution. Allowing yourself to employ complete abandonment, that’s one of my favorite things about making music. When you stop thinking of the things you’re told as sense, what’s all been decided by someone else, it is up to you to decide.”
Still locked in the room, our insecurity as bumbling investigators gave way to giddy confidence. We know that some sort of trick will reveal a new clue or open a door if we wiggle this or slide that. Is the code hidden in TV static? Is the radio speaking to us? What’s this key do? There’s a phone — who do we call? And what does Elvis have to do with it? Cracking codes, remembering numbers, getting duped, working together — things got fun.
“So what is Crab Day?” I ask.
“My niece hated April Fool's Day and decided she wasn’t doing it. She said, ‘Today’s Crab Day,’ sat down and started drawing crabs. So in my family we wish each other 'Happy Crab Day' instead. On a deeper level, it’s about how things relate to an individual. When everything is fabricated anyway, retaining something for yourself is enough, without the validation of others.”
“Does that make you feel lonely? Don’t you want someone to share it with?”
“No,” she says. “In this day and age of sharing everything, we’re becoming photocopies of ourselves, so far removed from reality. Sometimes you need to stop and retain something and do things for your own fulfillment.
“As you grow older, you sort of come to the conclusion that nothing makes sense,” she continues. “Everything is fucked. I don’t mean that in the Rapture sense. There’s as much comfort as there is fear in it. This record deals with that. It’s all the usual worries and fears with the backdrop that everything’s fucking nonsense anyway so … fuck it.”
We made it out of that Maze Room with 13 minutes to spare.