On November 9, Caleb Cordes wanted to clear up something about his band’s most incendiary song, “Dogs.” It was the day after the election, and as musicians were starting to raise their voices in dissent, the frontman of the North Carolina punk band Sinai Vessel knew he had to be specific. “This song is explicitly about Evangelical Christians,” he writes in a Facebook post. Cordes explains that he knows the community well, having been raised in it—but chastises the group for rejecting “the people their faith explicitly calls them to love and advocate for” and choosing to ignore “those desperately suffering in their immediate vicinity.” If you’ve been paying attention to the public outcry since the election, his message is a familiar one: Fear is easier to buy into than hope, and intimate conversations are more important than ever.
Cordes’ niche in the indie rock world has been just as outspoken. Foxing and Pinegrove, along with Sinai Vessel’s label Tiny Engines, have all donated proceeds to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. But although Cordes is a part of that scene, he remains something of an outlier. He grew up far outside the Northeast bubble—the 23-year-old was raised in rural North Carolina, about 40 minutes outside of Charlotte, and now lives in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he went to college. But most crucially, he still considers Christianity to be a touchstone of his life, even though he’s now completely divorced from the Evangelical church. (He was heavily involved with it in high school.) “If it’s my ethical center, it just helps me love better, it helps me be more empathetic [and] meditate on those principles… by which I live my life,” Cordes tells me over coffee the morning after their recent Pittsburgh show.
That level of spirituality not only gives him a concrete sense of place—it also grants him an intimate understanding of the so-called forgotten man, the one that those on both sides of the partisan divide will say cost Democrats the election. But Cordes has no intention to disparage Christians on “Dogs,” or anyone else on the rest of Sinai Vessel’s latest record, Brokenlegged. In fact, Cordes seems to think that Christians who resent those suffering right before them don’t actually feel that way; he blames religious leaders for their xenophobic rhetoric. “I have a great deal of empathy for those people, those are the people I’m surrounded by in the South,” he said. “And I have hope for those souls, too—that they will turn around and realize the world around them needs their love.”
Cordes speaks in carefully constructed sentences—he doesn’t shy from heady, loaded words like “autonomous,” “subservient,” and “truth.” He sounds sure of himself. This hasn’t always been the case—at least, not for Sinai Vessel. The name itself captures the band’s constantly evolving philosophy. (Cordes once read that “sinai” can mean uncertainty—by pairing it with “vessel,” he wanted to describe an “uncertain container.”) Cordes has been the center of the band, with a rotating cast of friends, since 2009. His 2011 Labor Pains is the earliest record you can dig up online (although he tells me there are earlier EPs he’s purged from the internet).
But soon after the band’s 2013 EP, Profanity, Cordes changed course—seeking out two high school friends, drummer Joshua Herron and bassist Daniel Hernandez, to replace his ever-changing college troupe. With that, he finally had some certainty to work with. “I already know their musical personalities, their personality-personalities,” he tells me, wondering why he didn’t think of doing that earlier.
Sinai Vessel is already a formidable recording and touring act. The night before we meet, I saw them dismantle a raucous, drunken college-town basement. And the cover art on Brokenlegged sends an equally strong message: It’s an image of paralyzing hopelessness, with no person, much less a cell tower, anywhere nearby to send out a distress signal. But Cordes reiterates that the songs from Brokenlegged came from an entirely different mindset than the one he currently occupies. Back in college, Cordes experienced a different kind of isolation. “I lived in a fourth-floor dorm that was a single occupancy room,” he says. “My mental health took a dive, and I spent a ton of time in a really small town, in a really small space by myself. It got desperate there for a minute.”
Brokenlegged doesn’t sound this claustrophobic. The intricate rock songs earn their select moments of gritted-teeth despair. This record unspools carefully, with string arrangements and airy guitars filling out spacious, dynamic landscapes. They added more orchestral elements and loops during the second time they recorded Brokenlegged—the band recorded the first version after just four days in the studio, and then promptly scrapped it all. (Cordes tries to assure me this was much less dramatic than it sounds.)
That’s not entirely out-of-step with Sinai Vessel’s history of continuous realignment. Cordes has spent much of his time as a songwriter sifting through harmful relationships, beliefs, and institutions. On Profanity, he cuts most Evangelical ties from his life; on Brokenlegged, he grapples with the consequences. But there are a few moments on their latest album when Cordes realizes that some aspects of his religious upbringing are worth holding onto. He sums up “Birthblood” to me as a song of reclamation: “That baby I threw out with the bathwater, that might have been a good thing, and I probably should get some of that back.”
Now Cordes is looking far beyond the southern Appalachia. The weekend of his Pittsburgh show, thousands of Americans gathered in airports to protest President Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries—but Cordes had been thinking about borders, nations, and refugees long before the executive order was signed. When the band passed through New York, he visited the MoMA’s exhibition on displacement and refugee camps, and related it to the biblical concept of Eden—a place he describes as borderless, fenceless, with no division between human beings.
A band with Sinai Vessel’s reach—or any band, really—has a minimal impact on international affairs, and Cordes isn’t readying a protest record. On the next album, he plans to channel his guiding purpose of constructive, peaceful interactions. After figuring out what defines his core beliefs, Cordes strives for a personal Eden, through sharing his newfound clarity and reaffirmed principles with whoever’s willing to listen. “The new material, rather than sorting out what I’m against, is about living for what I’m for, and trying to bring an end result of peace and goodness.”