AJ Caves: Anything But Tragic

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 20 – Summer 2022

We recently had a chance to connect with the effervescent AJ Caves of Fullerton, CA-based rock band, The Tragic Radicals (TR). A strictly instrumental project known around the OC area for their crushing riffs, towering amplifiers, and overall grungy spirit, TR proves —-despite having only two members — that less is more. Read on to hear how this tight-knit duo produces All. That. Sound. 

You’re originally from Brainerd, MN. Why the move to California? Was it to pursue music?

I moved West in 2005 for several reasons, I guess. I had just finished my associate’s degree. I was really over Minnesota winters, not to mention bored living in a small town, hours from the next big city where things were happening in the music/art scene. Music played a big part in the move, but I also wanted to get an affordable education (believe it or not, it’s somehow cheaper to go to college in CA). I ended up attending Cal State Long Beach for a couple of years, jumping around majors and never finishing. Furthermore, the LGBT (it only had that many letters back then) community was pretty much non-existent in Brainerd and really wasn’t widely accepted in Minneapolis either at the time. As a 20-year-old interested in girls, I knew I had to be in a place where I could be myself, and I assumed California would be a good choice. Thankfully, my intuition served me well, and I met and married my beautiful wife, Jennifer, an Anaheim native, out here — I couldn’t be happier! 

Who were some of your influences as far as guitar players go?

Big influences for me — Joey Santiago from the Pixies has always been a favorite. You can hear a lot of Joey’s influence on TR songs like “Welcome to Dyownsville,” “Machine Gun,” and “Trunk Beer.” I also borrow a lot of guitar feel from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. The odd guitar tunings and chromatic chord progressions really resonate with me and have shaped my playing style in a big way. James Iha, also a key player in my sound. He often doesn’t get the credit he deserves, especially for his work in the Smashing Pumpkins. His tone is unique, and again, choice of notes and progressions, very appealing to me. If you think Billy Corgan had everything to do with the SP’s guitar work, listen to A Perfect Circle!

One of the main guitars I’ve seen you reach for is your Fender Jaguar. Who or what turned you on to that body style?

I’ve always been a Fender guitar player. I’ve been on the Jaguar for about ten years now but have also favored the Jag-Stang, Jazzmaster, and Jagmaster. I’m big into surf music, and these are some of the most popular surf guitars. The necks on these guitars are very conducive to my hand size, especially the Jag-Stang; I, unfortunately, have small hands and a minor arthritic condition that hinders my guitar playing at times, so it’s crucial to play on a comfortable neck to make it through a show. I have been fortunate to find an incredible luthier (and friend) that works for Fender. He has done all my custom work on most of the above-mentioned axes. He did a remarkable job on my Jaguar (the one I play most frequently) — we replaced the pickups with Phat Cat P90s, implemented a hardtail bridge, and rewired the input jack and volume/tone pots. The body and neck are pretty much the only original pieces on the guitar. Paired with my Marshall JCM 800, the thing sounds HUGE. And huge is necessary when there are only two people in your band!

The Tragic Radicals are an all-instrumental project. Out of curiosity, have you ever considered adding vocals?

When I formed TR in January 2016, we were a four-piece band with vocals and bass (Tyler was our bass player at the time). Over the years, we’ve gone through four drummers and two singers before scaling back to just guitar and drums. Tyler and I have found a fun niche since going purely instrumental and have zero intentions of expanding the band’s lineup. Tyler’s musical ability and versatility, along with our collaborative approach, really gives TR a leg up in the freedom and creativity departments. We happen to be very good friends as well, which doesn’t hurt! I think the music scene needs a little something outside of the box, and our aim is to debunk the notion that vocals are imperative for a band to be successful and marketable. As my wife likes to put it, “‘The Tragic Radicals’ music allows the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ where songs with lyrics tell you how you’re supposed to feel.” I honestly think we will be seeing more instrumental bands in the future. Doesn’t anyone remember classical? Jazz? People loved that s–t.

Which pedals do you use to get your crunchy, nineties-esque sound?

My board setup is fairly simple. I use an EarthQuaker Devices Swiss Things Pedalboard Reconciler to consolidate all of my effects and boost pedals with true bypass. There is a built-in boost on the EarthQuaker itself, which I do employ, but it doesn’t provide a very distinct, crunchy sound, but more of a ‘louder clean,’ if you will. My ‘distortion’ pedal is just a BOSS Equalizer, set to flat mids; I don’t use a formal boost or distortion pedal. On the effects side, I use an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano Reverb, and on occasion, I kick on a BOSS Super Chorus or MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay on top. That’s all, folks! I think the combination of my guitar, full Marshall stack, and bass amp contribute to the nineties-esque sound as much as the pedals do.

How did you become acquainted with your drummer, Tyler?

Tyler responded to my ad on Craigslist when I was putting the band together! He and I have been the last standing original members for quite some time now and, as I mentioned previously, have become close friends over the last six years in TR. We’re having an absolute blast playing as a duo, and I feel so fortunate to benefit from such a talented musician.

Do you have plans to tour with TR?

The short answer is yes! We were planning a tour for the fall of 2020, but we all know how that year and the subsequent year went for most bands. We’re tentatively planning a tour with our friends, The Hajj, but thinking it won’t be until 2023. Between our real jobs, lives, and Baby Kane Chittick (yes, there is a Tragically Radical child!), 2022 is starting to fill up fast. It’s already April, and we’ve been playing shows weekly since mid-January. We may be able to squeeze in some mini-tours this year if time allows. We just got back from playing in Vegas, which we would like to do again, and we plan to shoot for Bullhead City and maybe Phoenix over long weekends with some friends in local bands. Eventually, the goal is to make our way up to my home state, Minnesota, where Tyler has lived and has family up in Montana. The plan is to hit various cities along the way, depending on the route we end up taking. We’ve got a new EP coming out by this summer and have new material to write before we hit the road, but touring is on the agenda!

Photo provided by artist with permission to use

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Alexx Calise is an accomplished singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Perhaps best known for her hit song, “Cry,” which became a staple on the show “Dance Moms” and boasts millions of hits on YouTube, Calise’s raw emotion, heart-and soul-lyrics, and unmistakable vibrato have impacted thousands of young girls all over the world. Calise is currently working on new solo material and songs for licensing, and she recently released a new EP with another music project, Batfarm. In addition to her musical pursuits, she also works in public relations and marketing and owns her own party entertainment business. When not playing shows or writing music, she enjoys horror movies, exercising, or taking a well-deserved nap. alexxcalise.net