In North Carolina, it’s sweater weather. The wind is cool and damp, the ground riddled with strata of soggy, decaying leaves. But not so along Costa Rica’s western shore, where, not far from celebrated Pacific swells, Murat Dirlik sits outside in the middle of a sunny Playa Grande afternoon. He’s shirtless and drinking homemade wine.
“I’m totally addicted to surfing. It’s my favorite thing to do,” says Dirlik. Until May, he lived in Hillsborough and was enmeshed in the Triangle music scene, particularly through his righteous blues-metal steamroller, Caltrop. “I miss everyone horribly, but I don’t spend my time reflecting on that. I’m super-busy and having a ton of fun.”
Dirlik guesses it’s about 90 degrees in Playa Grande, but he seems hesistant to say even this, as if quantifying the weather will ruin its magic. Behind him, subtropical plants that wouldn’t survive a North Carolina winter thrive. Tucked among them are honeymoon rental cabins, of which Dirlik is the property manager. He fixes everything that breakscars, washing machines, Wi-Fi networks. A friend strolls by and calls out to Dirlik that he’s picked up some necessary motorcycle parts. They chat for a moment, Dirlik answering in Spanish, and make plans to catch up later.
Across the water in one direction, there’s the tourist-friendly town of Tamarindo, where spring break rituals certainly apply. But Dirlik lives and works inside the jungle of Las Baulas National Marine Park. His friends are locals and European expats. He’s comfortable with his adventuresome new lifestyle, not cavalier. Picture a grown-up Huck Finn, his beard graying and face grizzled but finding ways to gleefully thrive on the fringes of what’s expected.
“You get the occasional person that hates it here,” he says, a perpetual half-grin, half-smirk on his face. “They’re the kind of people who don’t realize that Costa Rica has ants or snakes or hot weather.”
But Dirlik’s excellent new record, released seven months after he left North Carolina, doesn’t exactly depict a paradise. Instead, Songs From the Last Time I Died reflects the climate of late 2014, a bleak personal stretch for Dirlik that led directly to his exit. He was in the depths of a bad breakup, and Caltrop seemed to be disintegrating. He’d had the same job for a decade and the same house on the Eno River for just as long. He loved both, but, at the age of 41, he bristled at the thought of getting stuck with them for the rest of his life. He penned a handful of tender, heartbroken pop cuts, about as far removed from Caltrop’s viscous churn as he could get, and left for Costa Rica.
Songs stands now as a letter home from a musician who’s found a way to put out a record with no strings attachedand who is not coming back any time soon.
Huck Finn would rather surf.
Sam Taylor does not speak of Caltrop in the past tense.
“As we left it, nobody said, ‘It’s done,’” the band’s guitarist and vocalist says. “If I ended up back in a room with those dudes playing music at some point, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Fellow guitarist Adam Nolton agrees; the four achieved machine-like tightness and intuitive chemistry, he says, and plenty of unfinished material remains.
Still, in 2012, Taylor moved back to Morehead City, where his parents, uncles, aunts and brother all live. For about two years, he made the three-hour-plus commute from the port town to the Triangle for practices. Touring and recording naturally slowed, and in 2014, he and drummer John Crouch became dads.
“For over 10 years, we toured something like 80 or 90 days out of the yearnot a lot for some bands, but a lot for dudes in their 40s with wives, kids, mortgages, jobs,” Nolton says. “Everyone was growing up.”
Dirlik agrees that the band could have maintained that slower pace for many more years, but he sounds less than keen on the idea of Caltrop persisting on life support. When his current employer offered him work overseeing cabins at Playa Grandea guaranteed job and place to live on a coast known for its surfinghe jumped at the chance.
Caltrop played a blowout farewell show at Chapel Hill dive bar The Kraken in February, and a hard-drinking audience drank the place dry. Everything was wrapping up, and Dirlik was on his way out.
That lit a fire under Mike Westbrook, who had heard the songs Dirlik had written and had already decided he wanted to be the person to put them to tape.
“I was pushing just as fast as I could,” Westbrook remembers. “He could leave in two weeks. He could leave in two days.”
Westbrook and Dirlik began making music together a quarter-century ago as high school seniors. Their early songs were goofy, lightweight numbers written by teenagers drinking soda until 3 a.m. Hip-hop numbers about suburban kids who thought they were tough existed alongside reggae songs about their friends and death metal cuts about chips and salsa at El Rodeo.
“Our musical relationship started on this awesome level of pure funno shows, we would just go to his parents’ garage and make whatever weird song we could come up with,” Dirlik recalls. “We were sober kids back then, having fun, making music.”
Years later, the two worked together in Kerbloki, a comedy hip-hop project that lasted until Westbrook moved to New York City in 2009. After three years, he returned, but he’d refined his focus. Eschewing the complications of performing, he shifted his attention to sound engineering. Today, he does sound design for documentaries, scores short films, and helms recording sessions.
Given their shared history and Westbrook’s new résumé, Dirlik knew he could trust no one else with these breakup songs. The results have more in common with the Beatles, America or the Beach Boys than the riff-based metal of Dirlik’s past project. Punctuated by pedal steel, “Change” is a swinging Americana ballad, rich with oohs and ahs. “Empty Room” is modern doo-wop, while “Jennjammin” adjoins Brill Building R&B to upbeat funk-rock. Dirlik sounds wounded and vulnerable, as if confiding in his acoustic guitar.
“Thank you boss man/for giving me these things to build,” Dirlik sings in the opener. “They silence my mind and my heart.”
After the breakup that spawned these tunes, Dirlik told his mother he’d rather spend Thanksgiving alone, drinking a case or more of beer and fixing things around his old place in Hillsborough, than come home for the holiday. Rather than dwell on the breakup, he kept busy. It had been a long time coming, and Dirlik admits it was his faulta recurring pattern in his life.
“It’s just heartbreak,” he says. “It’s not suffering compared to the suffering some people experience, but it is something that’s hard to escape when you’re in the midst of it.”
The first song, “Change,” came to him in a rush. He saved it as a voice memo on his phone. More followed, many of them simple four-chord numbers. Dirlik loves the Beatles, but he’d never written anything so close to rock’s basics before. After the complexity of Caltrop, such simplicity seemed strange and exciting.
“He’s kind of a maximalist,” Crouch says. “As a bass player and artist in general, he likes to fill in all the nooks and crannies.”
Westbrook guided Dirlik through these stages on Songs, bringing in cello, keys, pedal steel and upright bass as well as contributions from Nolton and Crouch. The house was built on a foundation of wounded vocals and straightforward acoustic chords.
“I would go so far as to give Mike more credit than myself,” Dirlik says. “It’s a whole different complicated way to do a song.”
In a way, the end result is the ultimate expression of what Dirlik and Westbrook started a generation agonot the comedy, mind you, but the love of recorded music for its own sake. Songs is a return to the no-obligation way Westbrook and Dirlik once made music together, a way to find some innocence even in sadness and goodbyes.
“Being in Costa Rica is a little bit of a safety blanket for him,” says Westbrook. “I don’t know if he was here if it wouldn’t force the issue of, ‘This record’s done, let’s play some shows.’”
Westbrook, like half of Caltrop, is a family man now, while Dirlik has found a way to remain a sort of perpetual teenagerworking hard and working with his hands, sure, but also chasing Pacific swells and cavorting in a tropical jungle simply because he can.
“All of my friends, they were like, ‘Man, you’d better do it. Because we can’t,’” Dirlik says, happily sitting in the heat, under the trees, not far from the sea.
That much Taylor can agree with: “Surrounding yourself with beauty never hurts.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Natural remedies”