Like the ants he studies by day, Eric Caldera is driven, even if he isn't sure why.
Caldera, 26, is a doctoral dissertator in evolutionary biology at UW-Madison. He studies the genetic disposition of Central American ants that cut leaves and harvest them into fungus.
A similar instinct drives Caldera to play guitar. He plays with the dexterity of a classically trained professional, but no one ever taught him how to do it.
"It's kind of like I don't know how not to do it," says Caldera. "It's just part of my life."
Since he moved to Madison in 2005, Caldera has made a name for himself in the local music scene. He's a member of the popular instrumental guitar-rock trio El Valiente. This weekend, he releases Safado, the second CD he's made under his singer-songwriter moniker, Oedipus Tex.
When I interviewed Caldera last week, he sat in the cool spring sun along State Street, adorned in a dark-blue ski cap and oversized glasses. The Texas native reflected on his background not as a series of active choices, but as acquiescence to a kind of destiny.
Don't interpret his academic achievements as a sign of personal ambition, says Caldera. He just got there by chance. "To be completely honest, I was always a really bad student, elementary through high school," he says.
"I never thought I would go to college at all, which is why I went to junior college in San Antonio, to try it out. I figured out I was actually okay at school. To be honest, biology was one of the first classes I took. My professor told me, 'Hey, you're pretty good at this,' and I thought, well, I'll major in it."
During junior high school, Caldera says his parents "forced me to play clarinet." But he migrated toward a different musical calling. "I got the idea that I wanted to play rock guitar. My parents didn't want me to do that at all. So for a couple of months I saved my lunch money. I came home really hungry every day, but I saved enough to buy a guitar at a pawn shop."
Caldera has been performing in bands since before high school. He began his solo Oedipus Tex project while living in Austin and attending the University of Texas.
In Madison, Caldera has continued Oedipus Tex while teaming up with bassist David Sperka and percussionist Joe Bernstein to form El Valiente.
"It's the best of both worlds," said Caldera. "There's part of me that wants to sing and write lyrics, and there's this part of me that doesn't want to have to think about how vocals or a melody may go over a guitar lick when I'm writing a guitar lick. In El Valiente I just get to play my guitar, but I still get to sing in Oedipus Tex."
Safado is a collection of coffeehouse-style acoustic guitar tracks. The disc is rich in finger-picking guitar that meanders as much as the moods of the songs. The lyrics frequently express a restlessness to forge ahead. "Don't you want to leave this town?" sings Caldera on "Ground All Gone." "'Cause you ain't got nothing to lose."
Even in his approach to songwriting, Caldera affirms the idea that instinct is best.
"I recorded [Safado] in a maximum of two days," he says. "I just kind of hammered it out. Part of that was purposeful. When you're in a studio with a band, you get into this mentality of redoing this or that. I don't like getting into that too much. I just like to say, 'I'm going to do that now.' Then I do it."