When Vlad Holiday chose the name Born Cages, it was meant as a statement on his view of human nature. Drawing on the experiences of his youth into being an aspiring New York musician, it appeared that from the outset, people are trapped, boxed in, restrained. If we’re to believe William S. Burroughs, the mind itself is a ghetto. But Holiday has never been one for fashionable punk cynicism. Rather, Born Cages is a Socratic statement that asks more probing questions - which cages are yours? Are you judged by your ethnicity, your genre of music, your tastes? Social class? Do you hold the key to these cages or do you trust them to someone else?
Likewise, the perceived negativity in the title of Born Cages’ bold debut LP I’m Glad I’m Not Me hides a relentless optimism. As opposed to despair, there’s triumph in the breakthrough of recognizing how “me” belongs in scare quotes, that the self is most often comprised of the assumptions and projections that society places on a person. Born Cages. I’m Glad I’m Not Me. It’s lyrical in a way, a call-and-response chant that cries freedom.
Call it populist music for those no longer willing to take solace in solitude, a soundtrack to be shared on the path to self-discovery. “Take me off the sidelines,” he sings on ”Don’t Look Back”, a sentiment understood by anyone feeling as if they’re not participating in life to the fullest extent, of getting close enough to see how far away you are from the action. Which is to say, anyone. It is a dare to anyone who chooses not to go deeper than its slick, melodic surface: you can be entertained, but do you want to actually have skin in the game? Holiday’s lyrics are constantly searching, yearning for a connection and realization: “Break me out of this gilded cage that holds me.” “You’re just the metaphor I’ve waited for.”
I’m Glad I’m Not Me was recorded at Mission Sound (Arctic Monkeys, Metric, Matt & Kim) in Brooklyn, NY and was produced by Jon Kaplan (Cage The Elephant, Walk The Moon) and co-produced by Vlad himself. On the album, Holiday, bassist/keyboardist Matt Maroulakos and drummer Dave Tantao conjure festival-ready, truly modernist modern rock that is every bit as grand as its song titles would predict: “Bigger Than Me.” “I Just Want The Truth, Baby.” “Don’t Look Back.” “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.”
All of which speak on a desire for emotional autonomy; but the freedom Holiday sought wasn’t so symbolic at an early age. Holiday’s father, an acclaimed actor-turned-journalist, was critical of the post-Ceausescu regime in Romania and fled the country for the safety of his family. As a young boy, Vlad eventually reunited with his parents in New Jersey, where he was immediately known as an outcast in school. Vlad was a figure of curiosity amongst his classmates, who would ask him, “Why isn’t your name John or Nick?” But he admits that by high school, “all of a sudden, being foreign was cool”. Especially in New York, what’s uncool one day can be the epitome of coolness the next and right back around, so why dwell on things that are of no real consequence.
And so even as a youth, Holiday was drawn to the classic rudiments and process of playing music rather than the trends. Still yet to have his first thought in English, Holiday found he could use a shared interest in music to relate to his peers before it could possibly be a way to learn about himself. He taught himself guitar by downloading live tracks from Stevie Ray Vaughan and other bluesmen off Kazaa, recognizing the patterns and scales that were the basis for nearly every solo of the masters.
He served as a guitarist for a number of bands whose promise and success fizzled in a literal New York minute. But rather than letting these setbacks discourage him, Holiday started to find his voice, transitioning from merely playing guitar and writing songs. The turning point was hearing the Strokes’ Is This It?, the influence of which initially manifested in Holiday utilizing the same kind of distorted vocal filters - “because I was super-scared as a vocalist,” he admits. Years later, his internalization of lessons learned during the New Rock Revival come through in I’m Glad I’m Not Me in its punchy hooks, economic arranging and a distinct kind of New York City disillusionment; it’s the despondency of being told your mere existence in the city is a sign of having “made it” and still feeling alone amongst the millions.
Holiday also learned the difference between starting a band and performing from Canadian synth-pop alchemists Metric, whose frenetic live show had Holiday thinking, “I was right back where I was at 12,” wowed by Emily Haines’ mastery of movement. They also inform Born Cages’ taut interplay, rhythm kineticism and judicious use of synthesizers. But perhaps most importantly, Vlad, Dave and Matt collectively strive to capture that nostalgic innocence and vulnerability of youth onto the audience, when discovering a new band could change everything.
Holiday workshopped songs in his parents’ place during the dead of winter, unwittingly battling a carbon monoxide leak that could’ve killed him. Recalling those sessions, Holiday says, “that’s when I really knew, I got to get the hell out of this place.” And in their short time, Born Cages have proven they can go anywhere. They’ve toughed out New York’s unforgiving indie rock scene and even had a brush with pure rock ‘n roll legend after being handpicked to open for Guns ‘n Roses during two sold-out club shows. “We didn’t get to meet Axl Rose, but his Escalade almost hit our van,” Holiday jokes.
It’s no surprise then that I’m Glad I’m Not Me touches on pop, rock, electronic, dance, alternative and everything in between, reaching listeners thought to be quarantined from each other. It’s a record celebrating togetherness in fractious times, music that finds commonalities rather than chasms. Throughout, Born Cages play with an urgency that posits their music as something essential, from brash lead single “Rolling Down the Hill” to “Bigger than Me”, a song inspired by a fan’s failed suicide attempt and subsequent spiritual awakening. Holiday wrote the song as a tribute to the restorative powers of music itself, which is why he considers it the culmination of everything the band has tried to accomplish. “I wanna be a part of something bigger than me”, he belts during the chorus, a mission statement if there ever was one for Born Cages and I’m Glad I’m Not Me.