Before they were Oh, Cassius!, John Torres and Meredith DiMenna were fellow musicians in the small yet profound music scene in and around Black Rock, Connecticut, a seaside neighborhood tucked between the picturesque suburban town of Fairfield and the art-and-gun-ridden city of Bridgeport.
From the mid-2000s on, Torres spearheaded various incarnations of his lush and complex indie folk endeavors while DiMenna quaked in paroxysm of religious possession as frontwoman in the rock band Saint Bernadette.
It was the pairing of their remarkable voices that ultimately inspired the duo to create a focused musical project. In the winter of 2010, DiMenna asked Torres to sing harmony on Saint Bernadette’s letting-go-of-love song, “In the Next Go Round.” They rehearsed together at DiMenna’s apartment in Read’s Artspace, an artist live-work project in downtown Bridgeport, and her clear, sweet-strong voice melted into Torres’ warm warble. After performing “In The Next Go Round” at Black Rock’s The Acoustic for Saint Bernadette’s processional band showcase, ‘Sunday Mass,’ Torres followed with his totemic love song “Mason Jar,” and both saw that their songwriting could pair as seamlessly as their voices.
“At first, we started a band that wasn’t really a band,” Torres said in a FaceTime interview from their Bridgeport studio in late October. “It was more of a drinking thing–we would get together and drink red wine and sing in Spanish. We called it ‘Spanish Language Band’ for lack of a better name.”
Their first song, “Hangman’s Grave,” was written in April of 2012. Torres explained that the song was born from a dream he had about a hangman, which led him to wonder over the fate of those who are tools to people in power – the innocent-yet-guilty gruntworkers who follow orders. Once he shared a riff and the initial idea with DiMenna, the song was written in a matter of two hours. Or mostly written, as Torres clarifies.
Torres and DiMenna have opposite approaches to writing – she works as conduit, and he as polisher – hence why Torres says “Hangman’s Grave,” a waltzy, alt-country ballad in the vein of Gram Parsons and EmmyLou Harris, is not quite there yet. In describing his process, Torres identifies with Willem de Kooning’s near-two-year labor over the famous wide-eyed abstract figure, “Woman, I” – the artist painted, scraped, and repainted the canvas, and even sent the piece into the trash for a time. This reference makes sense; Torres is also a visual artist, and his vast capacities as an instrumentalist serve as an extensive palette of possible sound.
“I’m more of a vessel for my material,” said DiMenna, who, armed with a background in theatre, performance, and production, is a master of the moment. “I don’t really feel right about rewriting things too much. But [“Hangman’s Grave”] is kind of a meditation – we open with it, and it immediately gets people on our wavelength.”
“I do feel like we both were given this song, because it just poured out,” she continued. “It set the template for what we did from there.”
That July, DiMenna and Torres holed up in a Chelsea apartment for a few days and wrote the bulk of the material that would become the repertoire of Oh, Cassius!, a name pulled from the lines of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
“Oh, Cassius!” is the lamentation of Pindarus, the bondsman of Cassius, a conspirator who stoked the assassination of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar. On the eve of war with Marc Antony, Cassius hears that his best friend, Titinius, has been captured by the enemy, and he wishes to die before Antony’s troops come to crush Cassius and his cohort Brutus’ attempted takeover. Cassius commands Pindarus to kill him; Pindarus does, and upon discovering Titinius was in fact still alive and that the troops on the horizon were allies, Pindarus emits the sorrowful cry of “Oh, Cassius!” These two words and their accompanying punctuation marks serve as a reminder for Torres and DiMenna to remain devoted to their craft in the face of hardship.
Oh, Cassius! debuted their act in late July at Stratford’s Forest to Shore (FTS) Gallery as an opener for Torres’ solo project, and the audience responded well. Soon after FTS, DiMenna was asked to open for Suzanne Vega at The Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport. She brought Torres along, and since then, the gig offers have never ceased. The duo earned the “Best Other” award in the 2013 Connecticut Music Awards, and in the past year, they’ve shared bills with Deer Tick, The Felice Brothers, and Lake Street Dive.
“I don’t think we really planned to have a band,” said DiMenna. “We played one time, and then we knew we had a band.”
Oh, Cassius! released The Ides of March, a weekend-long streaming preview of their upcoming EP, on–when else?–the Ides of March, 2014, one day after their masters were serendipitously returned to them, and the date Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. The release of their letterpressed seven-song debut EP, On Such a Full Sea Are We Now Afloat, was celebrated with a full band and a sold-out audience at Fairfield Theatre Company this past July, and the EP was just released digitally via INgrooves on October 17.
On Such a Full Sea went through many phases before it came galloping through the doors of Carriage House, a state-of-the-art recording studio in Stamford. Just before entering the studio, Oh, Cassius! was a guitar-based duo, with a bit of glockenspiel or kazoo thrown in for good measure. Then Torres had a burst of creative energy and put together a few demos, and the band’s trajectory shifted.
“We had just set up our studio with a drumkit and pianos,” DiMenna said. “He did three demos that represented a much larger and more complex sound than what we were doing, and the decision was made that we would go in that direction instead of being an acoustic band. I think when Brendan signed up to work with us he thought we were going to make this Civil Wars or Lumineers record, as an Americana band. But it just didn’t turn out that way.”
Brendan is the Fairfield-based Grammy-nominated engineer Brendan Muldowney, who made his producing debut with On Such a Sea at Carriage House. Muldowney’s engineering credits include such esteemed artists as Elvis Costello, Dave Brubeck, and Susan Tedeschi, and he earned a Grammy nod for his work on singer-songwriter Seth Glier’s 2011 album, The Next Right Thing.
“Working with Brendan was great,” Torres said. “He’s very patient, and he’s thoughtful. He took the demos that I made and said, ‘Alright, let’s recreate these with better equipment.’ He was very open to our ideas, and Carriage House of course is an amazing studio, and the gear there is just awesome. We got great tones out of there.”
Torres and DiMenna were joined by many greats on On Such a Sea: drummers Chuck Palmer of RJD2 and Zachary Alford of David Bowie and B-52 fame, bassist Michael Libramento of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and a fellow Connecticut band, Mates of State, who made a guest appearance with drums, drum machines, synths, keys, and vocals on the lilting track “Irish Goodbye.” Dave Eggar, the cellist who crafted the rich orchestral sound of Coldplay’s 2008 hit “Viva La Vida,” composed on “Feathered Bones,” the EP’s euphoric closing track.
“He’s a force of nature, just a stunning performer,” Torres said of Eggar. “He comes into the studio and listens to the track once, and then layers the most beautiful cello, doing take after take after take, You don’t really understand what it’s going to be until the end. You listen to all twelve cello parts together and it’s this symphonic thing – it’s super cool.”
On Such a Sea took a year to complete, and in the end, 15 prospective songs were whittled down to seven–the songs had grown so much in sound and scope that time and money would only allow for about half to be produced. “Hangman’s Grave” is one such song that did not make the cut.
The seven songs that did make the EP are dynamic and packed with detail. DiMenna and Torres’ divine harmonies thread through “I Can’t Win,” the rollicking opener of infatuation and celebrated chagrin, to “Pollyanna in the House of the Devil,” a dark haunter about two lovers walking the line of morality. DiMenna said this track in particular represents one of the truest collaborative songs on the record, and both characters speak their side:
“I’m laying down,” DiMenna sings, “so you can stop feeling so bad / I’m rolling over / cuz I gave you everything I had.”
“I cannot sleep again / in this bed of broken men,” Torres responds. “I am leaving you, I am leaving you behind.”
“In my mind, I’m imagining a relationship that crosses boundaries for both parties,” DiMenna said of the song’s narrative. “But there’s some kind of pleasure in it that they feel is strong enough that they need to cling to it–but it violates at least one party’s code of ethics.”
Other standout tracks include “Carpenter,” which builds as Torres bodes a lover to wake and greet the morning. In the next verse, he pulls back: “I wouldn’t know the way to love you / if you bound my hands and broke my mind.” But as he takes the chorus and DiMenna subtly conveys his lover’s perspective in the background, we see Torres will be back to build and rebuild the bridges he burns, ever ready to start over.
Oh, Cassius! will be embarking on a mini-tour this fall, with dates in Rochester and Ithaca, New York in early November and a special performance planned for November 21 at The Bijou Theatre.
“We’re going to do a little Carter Family-style jam with our significant others to open the show,” DiMenna said. “They’re both excellent and talented as well, so we’re going to do some four-part harmonies and Americana songs.”
“And we’re going to wear masks, so it’s a secret who are we are,” Torres added.
Aside from plans to perform regionally, create more content, and finish their record, Torres and DiMenna are holding the reins to Oh, Cassius!’s future lightly.
“A band can’t really anticipate anything,” said DiMenna. “Everything that happens to you at the end of the day is going to be about chance. The only thing you can do is be consistent in what you create.”