The Awkward Hit-Makers

Berkeley's the Cataracs have built their career by smartly writing dumb music.



It's 11 a.m. on a Sunday in one of those oppressively sunlit North Berkeley cafes, and Niles Hollowell-Dhar (aka Cyrano, half of the Berkeley electro-pop duo the Cataracs) is hiding behind saucer-sized aviators, white-knuckling a cup of coffee and moving with all the torpor of a twenty-year-old who stayed out a little too late the night before. His other half, David Singer-Vine ("Campa"), is slightly better off than his bandmate at the moment, but there's still something manifestly, almost purposefully, unpolished about these two: Their posture is slumped, their speech slow and peppered with Bay Areaisms, their clothes rumpled.

But get the two of them talking and it quickly becomes clear that there's more to the Cataracs than their image projects. They're animated and articulate, chatting away about their music (synthed-out pop with sugary hooks and catchy beats); their story (which began when they were freshmen at Berkeley High) and their future (which looks bright, as they've just inked a deal with Universal Republic). Indeed, their white-teed Bay Boy slacker aesthetic and unabashedly dumbed-down sound conceal a sophisticated understanding of the industry— a sense of discipline and preternatural business-savvy that just may bring these two mainstream success.

"Our music never catered to an elitist audience, and that's important to me," Hollowell-Dhar said. "That's what people want — these dumb, mindless records where you go to the club and you bob your head and you dance. It's a time in music where people just really want something fun. They want to not have to think that much. They want ..."

He stops himself mid-sentence. "Well, most of our fans are like fifteen years old, so I don't think they think about this as much as we do."

Indeed, it's unlikely anyone thinks about this stuff as much as they do. There's a studied, left-brained pragmatism to their approach: Perhaps because they don't have classical backgrounds or industry connections, they've spent years examining and analyzing what it takes to make a hit and applying this knowledge to every new track. Take, for example, Hollowell-Dhar's explanation of what went into their latest single, "Club Love": "We had the spicy AutoTune, the minimal beats, the slick production," he said. "We really needed a club banger, so we basically pulled out all the tricks." They're constantly studying, thinking, finding what works and what doesn't and learning how to be better.

In other words, they're very smart about making dumb music.

It's this tension — between happy-go-lucky insouciance and hardboiled ambition, between the unabashedly dumbed-down music and its deceptively smart artists — that seems, more than anything, to define the Cataracs. There's an intriguing, endearing complexity to these two, as though they're still working through their identities as individuals and as artists, and haven't quite ironed out all the contradictions yet. They'll churn out one club banger after another, but they claim to hate clubs (Singer-Vine will go as far as to call club culture "the de-evolution of the human race.")

They'll earnestly extol the virtues of a sticky blunt and a Gordo's burrito one minute, then quote Machiavelli in all seriousness the next. They'll happily act the part of slick pop stars in their videos, but in person, they're polite and insist they don't go out much: "I mean, we do like clubs, but I'm ballin' on a budget," Singer-Vine said, before Hollowell-Dhar added that he usually feels "extremely awkward" at clubs. They'll happily play the part of a laid-back twentysomething slacker while logging serious hours in the studio.

Their music is simple, but only because it's been carefully designed to be. Their name itself is a perfect example, as even they don't seem to be able to tell whether it's a hollow, just-for-the-hell-of-it, deliberate misspelling, or if it's symbolic of some deeper meaning. Two years ago, they told the Chronicle that "Cataracs," sans T, was a nod to "a different way of seeing things," but now, back in Berkeley, coffee long drunk, they laugh when asked if the name is intended to be a metaphor for anything. "No, no," Singer-Vine says. "I think at some point, we just said, 'Fuck the T.'"

Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine were born and raised in Berkeley, and attended Berkeley High School, where they met as freshmen in 2002. By their own admission, they were fairly unexceptional students. "I think I was pretty bright but I had a lot of trouble focusing and it was always about figuring out a way to fake it," Hollowell-Dhar said. "I was kind of able to wing it a lot of the time." He made a name for himself on campus by styling himself as something of a rhetorical foil to Berkeley's ultra-liberalism. He raised rabble in class discussions and penned a column for the Berkeley High Jacket titled "The Capitalist Manifesto." The whole shtick, he now admits, had nothing to do with his own political ideology — which is as liberal as any good Berkeleyan's is — and everything to do with wanting to play provocateur, to "mess with Berkeley people."

Singer-Vine dropped out at sixteen, though he later went on to get his GED. He worked for a while at Andronico's bagging groceries before getting fired for stealing sandwiches. (Hollowell-Dhar cracks up at the thought of his bandmate holding down a nine-to-five: "It's hard to think of David going more than like 45 minutes without looking at a laptop.")

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