Cayucas, the Los Angeles-based band known for their sunny, melodic surf rock and buoyant, rhythmic jams, know the value of a fresh start. After riding the wave that a pair of albums and half a decade in the indie rock spotlight brings, the group—the work of twin brothers Zach and Ben Yudin—found themselves facing an uncertain future after losing key parts of their infrastructure. Seizing upon the opportunity to make a change, they responded by injecting a new vibe into their bread and butter sound, resulting in no less than the album of their career.
Having burst upon the scene in 2012 with their debut, Bigfoot, Cayucas quickly earned all the spoils for which a celebrated indie upstart could hope. Following two and a half years of heavy touring, they released their second album, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon, in 2015, a slightly moodier but no less infectious affair. It represented a creative step forward for the band, and while its level of praise never quite equaled the fever pitch for their debut, fans enjoyed the Yudin’s growth as songwriters and the record’s emotional depth. As they took time to begin preparations for the next record, they were also faced with the task of finding a new record label and representation. Undeterred, the brothers embraced the opportunity to reset.
“Maybe we’re optimistic, but it felt good to get a fresh start,” Zach says. “We were able to view things in a positive light. We were lucky, in a sense; we were starting from scratch and had nothing to lose. And when you’re coming from a place like that, that’s when things can creatively become much more interesting.”
Zach relished this contract-free time, finding creative inspiration in not having to stick to a schedule and a new encouragement in rediscovering his love of songwriting. From the duplex he shares with his brother in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, they revisited the songs they had begun for a new Cayucas album, many of which hearkened back to the band’s roots and the Beach Boys/surf rock sound of Bigfoot. Despite the feeling that persistence would eventually pay off, he and Ben began to realize that the fresh start they had been gifted could be used for an even bigger change. And with that, Zach started writing in a completely new direction.
We had written about a dozen demos that harkened back to our original sound. “The magic wasn’t in the air, and we were somewhat forcing it,” he says of the first batch of post-Blue Lagoon songs. “Starting over again was where this album was born. My brother and I are very passionate about music; we can’t help but chase the next thread and get excited about new ideas. I’m always trying to evolve as a songwriter so I have to chase what’s interesting me at that time. And that summer I wanted to do something more pop. I’ve always loved pop music. When you’re in a band you create this box for yourself of what you can and can’t do, and it’s hard to get out of that box. We’d been trapped in this indie rock world, which was just one part of it; I wanted to branch out from there but I didn’t know how. When I reached down into my heart of hearts, I knew I wanted to do something more pop but in the style of Cayucas.”
With that epiphany firmly set in motion, Zach sat down and in a week during the summer of 2016 wrote “Winter of 98,” a nostalgia-baked sun ray which utilized a poppier chord progression as well as a more polished production. Excited by the sound, Zach and Ben were encouraged to continue in that direction.
“That was the spark that led to the album,” Zach says. “Writing ‘Winter of 98’ was kind of the impetus for how we could go more pop. Those are the moments that any creative person is hoping for, where you get really excited about an idea that seems to be working. Everything changed at that point.”
Over the next six months, Zach wrote the majority of what would become Real Life, the third full-length Cayucas record. They spent a few months searching for a producer, and in the fall of 2017, the Yudins entered the studio in Downtown Los Angeles with Dennis Herring (Elvis Costello, Twin Shadow, Wavves, Modest Mouse) to make five songs. They worked in large chunks of time, returning to the studio in the spring with another batch and finally finishing at the end of May 2018. The brothers credit Herring with helping to breathe even more life into the work; the producer loaded the stems of the duplex-recorded demos—drum samples, bass lines, and the like—into ProTools and from that base the songs were built. And if some of the drums sound familiar to longtime Cayucas fans, it’s no accident.
“It was mind blowing how Dennis helped us turn the demos into finished songs,” Zach says. “He opened our eyes to what’s possible with songwriting and producing. There was no live drumming, everything was sample based—which is hard to wrap your head around but that was the pop sort of production I was getting into. I had tons of drum hits from our first album’s tracks like ‘High School Lover’ and ‘Cayucos’ and we chopped them up, which was great because it let us hold on to some of that vibe. There’s still a little nostalgia and it still feels like a Cayucas record.”
Nostalgia is a concept that will always be a huge part of Cayucas’s music, and the songs on Real Life are no different. As Ben says, “Looking back is on one of our favorite things to talk about. We’re just fascinated by the constant evolution of people, friends from high school and college. It makes for great lyrics and subject matter.” From the lament in “Winter of 98” of “if only I could have back yesterday” to tales of playing pool in Santa Monica bars to the subject of first single “Jessica WJ,” a bass-playing friend from their high school days, the band’s thematic flag is planted firmly in the past.
As for the album’s title song, “Real Life” is a nod to both the nostalgia the brothers obsess over as well as the positive thinking they embraced during the album’s beginnings. “That’s another thing I like to write about, this blind optimism,” Zach says. “‘Real Life’ is an ode to my mid-20s, writing music for fun and just waiting for real life to begin. I like lyrics with a lot of imagery, and it’s filled with moments from when I was going through the motions work-wise but writing music, being optimistic about the future and hoping one day to be able to release an album and play a show.”
It’s a sentiment that hasn’t left Zach Yudin’s heart of hearts, and one that he shares dearly with his twin brother. For Cayucas, a full embrace of optimism, the joy of creating, and a fresh start has gotten them this far, and promises to carry them even farther.
“I’m just happy to still be excited about writing music,” Zach says. “That feeling comes & goes but it hasn’t died.” I think that’s the only way to be successful is if you have a feeling inside that motivates you through the good times and the bad. The excitement keeps pushing you towards the next big idea—I still sit down at a piano every day and write—but we’re in a good place. We made the album that we wanted to make, and that’s the goal, creatively. I can’t imagine it playing out any better.”