The Awkward Hit-Makers 

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

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Their relationship started as a half-serious rap rivalry but quickly evolved into friendship and, shortly thereafter, collaboration, as they recorded their first tracks in Hollowell-Dhar's closet. They connected with the Pack, a group composed of students from Berkeley and Alameda high schools who were experiencing modest success at the time, and in 2005, the two groups collaborated on "Blueberry Afghani" — a fairly standard-issue hyphy joint with looped vocals, ringing synths, and a Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks compressed chorus extolling the virtues of a particularly delicious strain of weed. They put the track on MySpace and didn't think much of it until Wild 94.9 DJ J. Espinosa contacted them saying he'd like to play the song on his show. This was the Cataracs' first taste of local success, and it was enough to keep them working at it.

In the spring of 2006, the Cataracs finished Technohop Vol. 1, a twenty-track mixtape of largely unmemorable pop-inflected hyphy anthems. The boys and their friends ended up selling some 2,000 copies out of car trunks and at parties. That August, after "Vans," the Pack's infectious ode to the eponymous sneakers, became a bona fide hit up and down the West Coast, "Blueberry Afghani" picked up a second wind and was chosen as KMEL's "Download of the Week."

The boys then went off to college — Singer-Vine to Columbia College in Chicago and Hollowell-Dhar to SF State. But they kept making tracks while home on breaks and recorded essentially nonstop during winter holidays. In April 2007, they put out Technohop Vol. 2. The lead single, "Casanova," recorded over 350 spins on stations in the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. That summer, they met Berkeley High alums Ben Willis and Josh Andriano, who'd recently started a record label called Indie-Pop and asked to manage the Cataracs. Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine agreed and decided to take a year off from school to pursue music in earnest.

They spent that year living at home, recording and working — hard. "The one thing we benefitted from most during that time was locking ourselves in a room for a few hours a day," Singer-Vine said. "Eventually, [the music] got good. It wasn't always good." Indeed, talk to anyone close to the Cataracs and they'll emphasize how tirelessly they work, both then and now. As Singer-Vine's mother Ellen recalls, "He worked harder on this than he'd worked on anything else in his life." The Cataracs themselves also ascribe their relative longevity, and any success they're currently experiencing, to this work ethic. "I think a lot of younger artists sort of fell off because maybe they weren't seeing results they would've liked straight off," Hollowell-Dhar said. "For us, it was all about the three Ps: persistence, patience and perseverance," said Singer-Vine.

But despite the modest success of "Blueberry," nothing was certain yet. "We always said, if stuff didn't pick up we'd go back to college," recalled Hollowell-Dhar.

And then in the spring of 2008, it did. In March, they released "Baby Baby (The Lover's Anthem)," a sticky, synth-heavy pop jam that caught fire with fans and ultimately rose to the number-two spot on Wild 94.9's nightly countdown. They were steadily amassing a loyal base of followers and began regularly selling out local venues like La Peña and the Rickshaw Stop. They were also getting attention from major labels, including Mercury and Island Def Jam, but Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine, on Andriano and Willis's advice, decided to hold off in order to work on developing their base and finessing their sound.

In the following few months everything began to crystallize, commercially and creatively, for the duo. "That summer, the summer of '08, was just like one big clusterfuck of shows," said Hollowell-Dhar. "That's when we really started hitting all the little venues around the bay, playing all these sold-out shows." They were the subject of a glowing front-page profile in the Chronicle's Datebook section and recorded a video with Taj, an Oakland-based director who's worked with Ne-Yo and Rihanna.

With sales from concerts and iTunes, the Cataracs started seeing some money for the first time. "It's a really big step when you start making money," said Hollowell-Dhar. "Finally, it seemed kind of defensible that I would be doing music for a living." College was put on hold indefinitely.

Coinciding with their sudden surge in popularity was the group's deliberate move away from the hyphy-inflected sound that gave them their first minor hit. This, more than anything, seems to have been responsible for current success.

Hollowell-Dhar and Singer-Vine came of age creatively at the height of hyphy, that fleeting year or so when it really did seem like E-40 and his ilk were poised to change the face of music and put the Bay Area on the map. "When we started making music [hyphy] was all you could make," said Hollowell-Dhar. Indeed, most of their early tracks bear the indelible mark of the Mac Dre era. But they were always much more pop-oriented than that, and around the spring of 2007 began making songs that diverged from the genre. Even their latest track, a remix of this fall's "Club Love" featuring the hyphy ambassador himself, E-40, bears only the faintest imprint of the genre, in the form of 40's trademark burble. But there's none of the bass heaviness or scattered drumbeats of hyphy; this is pure electro-pop.

The Cataracs attribute much of their success, in fact, to their move away from the almost myopic regionalism that they believe has stunted the scene for too long. "All of a sudden we set ourselves apart, and we weren't making hyphy like everyone else," said Hollowell-Dhar. "And that's when we broke into the scene and made a name for ourselves. I don't think we would've been able to survive if we had stayed making that kind of music."

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