sychedelic R&B improvisers Tom and Christina Carter have been performing and recording under the Charalambides name since 1991. In this time they've released a stunning amount of CD-Rs, LPs, side projects, and solo releases, leading a consistently incredible route through to a number of different musical worlds. From the highly emotive drive of Joy Shapes to the investigations of Our Bed Is Green, the group continues to move easily from from heavy to elegiac and back again.
Originally based in Houston, Texas, the group now resides on opposing sides of the United States. Despite the geographical constraints, the duo continues to refine and expand their sound on their latest LP A Vintage Burden, set to be released later this month on Kranky.
Continuing its loose series of interviews with prominent underground figures, Stylus spoke to Christina and Tom about guitars, the roots of improvisation, and community.
Would it be totally off the mark to say that the blues and country music were the source of what you were doing when Charalambides began?
Christina: No, it wouldn’t be off the mark. I don't think it's off the mark now either.
Tom: For me the influence comes more from rock, but of course we all know where that comes from. The only music theory I ever bothered learning is based on blues and folk music, so my playing certainly reflects that.
What else do you draw from these days?
T: Generally, experiences playing with other people, along with the sum total of my listening/ playing history. I am somewhat obsessed with 60s psych of all stripes, though not necessarily the obscure stuff—things like the Byrds, Velvets, Quicksilver, Dead. I let a lot of that bleed into the new record; the end of “Spring” is my tribute to the Byrds' “I Wasn't Born to Follow.” I remain fond of improvisation, the more energy and less intellectualized the better. Freaky vocal music (female or otherwise) weighs heavy.
C: I think I continue to draw on the feelings given to me by listening to Patty Waters, Julie Driscoll / Tippetts, The Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, Sandy Denny, Loren Connors, Sam Lightnin' Hopkins, Annette Peacock, The Grateful Dead, John Fahey, and Bo Diddley, for probably the rest of my life. Also, in particular, lately listening to Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice has really got me inspired and keyed into getting back to a certain kind of soul music I used to do. I also love Heather Leigh Murray's pedal steel playing, Jo Ann Kelly's super rich voice, Sonic Youth's new time dimension American pop music and the Skaters up to the heavens saturated joy. There must also be something going on with me and France right now, because I've been thinking about writing some spiritual protest songs and today I had a Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes 3 CD listening session.
What’s a spiritual protest song?
C: I just don't see myself writing topical political songs. I can't imagine being good very at it. So in dealing with broader concepts, feelings and intuitions, the songs can be applied to specific situations after the fact—each song can fit more than one specific political situation.
Do you see yourselves as rhythm and blues players?
C: Yes and no. No, because I’m obviously not an R&B player in the conventional sense. Yes, because I think my playing follows stylistically the country blues, jazz, R&B, early rock ‘n’ roll continuum...and sort of takes off from there. In Charalambides my playing tends to fall in the rhythm guitar spectrum with a lot of improvisation taking place in the timing, spacing, placing, and 'creating' of chords/textures. I don't do a whole lot of line playing but when I do, it's fractured and doesn't have that sustain and flow that was pretty much discovered with the different technology developed after the late 60s. It seemed that player’s minds (and fingers and coordination) changed after that. Sometimes I get frustrated that I haven't caught up with all of the technology and ideas, but then again limitations, whether inside or outside, can be kind of inspiring as well.
T: I don't really have enough rhythm. If it came down to it I suppose I would settle for being an acid rock guitar player.
C: I’m certainly limited in my ability to conceive of exactly what someone (often Tom!) is doing when they're soloing with that beautiful tumbling, reaching, never ending arc. Physically my hands are just not dexterous enough, or haven't been so far.
What continues to draw you to these sounds?
T: The lonesome sound of it, the yearning, the majesty of a handful of notes and intervals combining and recombining in infinite ways; the simple universality of it.
C: My brain very much thinks in an endless variation on the same theme until it busts out onto a different tangent pattern. The blues and country are explicit in reinforcing that sort of evolutionary pattern, I think I'm drawn to any music that does that. I'm not into it because of romanticizing 'authenticity,' roughness, a certain time period, look, history or whatever. It's not the ‘playing’ that’s the interesting thing in those particular forms; it's the root or heart of it expressed in countless forms that gets me. I'm interested in breathing, living in the here and now and music that does the same.
Is there an obvious history of improvisational work within earlier genres of guitar music?
T: Sure, in all kinds of music, not just guitar, though the guitar lends itself nicely to modal improvisation in a way that the piano does not. And the voice does also.
T: Melodic improvisation that’s not necessarily based on chord changes, but variations within a single key based on a preset pattern of steps. A mode is kind of like a scale, but it's based on the steps between notes rather than on harmonies or chords. It comes (in Western culture anyway) from Greek music, but it’s universal. John Coltrane is the easiest example, particularly on Impressions. Modal soloing is also a psych rock chestnut, to the point of cliché, but what a great cliché it is.
C: I’m not sure what's meant by 'earlier genres'...Charlie Christian? Fred Frith? Jimi Hendrix?
I was thinking about how improvisational work in pre-progressive rock guitar based music doesn't seem to have really been recognized or explored.
C: There's those great singles (45s) that fade out on the guitar solo / jam just when things start getting interesting. For improvisation to be considered legitimate or important these days it seems to need to be based on an extended time frame. It’s also about the search for non-guitar sounding guitar sounds, stereo reproduction consciousness, and captured volume reproduction, even when it is acoustic. So in that sense, no I don't think there's an obvious history, I just think pre-psych / prog it has to be conceived of in terms of seconds rather than minutes. If you think in terms of flamenco (for instance) or in terms of what exactly is or is not a “guitar” there is a lot of improv from before that period. But with rock music a lot of it must have happened when the tape machines were turned off, there were no tape machines, or there was no one who cared to hear the tapes afterwards.
What was your first experience of improvisation, both as a listener and a player?
C: I remember pretty clearly what it was as a player, but not so clearly as a listener. My neighbor in Houston, Texas and my aunt in Queens, NY both had keyboard instruments when I was a kid. So, I knew they made sound and I’d play whatever I felt like on them to get those sounds out. There was also a piano store in the mall where you could sit down and give any piano or organ a try. At the time it felt like a rather urgent matter that they be played and I was too impatient to wait for lessons to make me a “credible” player, so I just went for it. I didn't know intellectually that what I was doing was improvising; it was just a matter of there being nothing in between me and what I wanted. As for listening with conscious appreciation, John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland or Ole and being transported by the complexity of the melodies and forms. But more likely my first exposure to improvisation was through looking at (and reading the works of) the Dadaists, Surrealists, and American Expressionists.
T: To sort of echo Christina, as a listener there was Jimi Hendrix's recording of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and as a player, banging around on my grandparent's old Baldwin organ and my mom's piano. By the time I first started playing 'for real,' my touchstones for improvisation were Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson amongst other things. I didn't really think of the freak-out / noise jam parts as being separated from the song. I did a lot of screwing around in front of a tape recorder, both with friends and solo, which most of the time took the form of trying to make the most annoying and / or strangest sounds possible. This was in between covers of whatever 'classic' rock songs we could figure out. When I started to take music and performance a little more seriously, the goofier aspects sort of fell away. Though I think there's a lot of off-the-cuff goofiness that survives on Our Bed Is Green, maybe even on later records too.
Is it likely that Charalambides will play as a trio again with Heather Leigh Murray? What’s the difference between your duo and trio work?
C: I doubt Heather will be playing with us regularly in the future. She's mighty busy with doing her solo music, Taurpis Tula, Volcanic Tongue, and pursuing all her multitude of interests in her hometown of Glasgow. Once you hear the new Charalambides LP, the differences will be obvious! No, seriously, Tom and I tend to become much more obviously rhythm and blues oriented and we both tend to play more blazing electric guitar solos.
T: Who knows? She was going to play with us at All Tomorrow's Parties, but her car broke down. Circumstances of location determine where/when we will play together more than anything else, I would love to play with Heather again, whether in Charalambides or not. I think that Christina and I are enjoying the exploration of the duo format for the time being. In the duo format we tend to slip more into a song mode, though we explored a lot of more abstract sounds as a duo right before Heather joined. Heather has a way of melting into whatever is going on and enabling things to get really loose, and I think in general that Christina and I tend to structure things more formally and even the abstract stuff would be more planned. I should also mention that a lot of the changes that happened in Charalambides when Heather joined had a lot to do with the language she had developed with Christina in Scorces.
Do you learn new things or ways of playing in collaboration with other artists?
C: Hopefully I’m learning more about my potentialities and something about relating myself to others that I haven't thought of before. Those different aspects of me can be emphasized or de-emphasized depending upon the situation. I'm not into the idea of being a chameleon.
T: Definitely, I play a lot differently with different people. When I play solo, or with Christina for that matter, I have more of a license to slip into straighter modes of playing that I may feel restricted from when playing with others. Some collaborations encourage learning and some don't. A lot of times my collaborators are attempting, I think anyway, to harmonize a whole sound in real time that expresses something beyond language. This is pretty close to what I've always done solo or with Charalambides. But at other times, it’s more process oriented, for instance Robert Horton likes to shape the sound and attain similar goals through extended periods of overdubs and editing. This is an approach I've been less familiar with, so I've learned a lot from him, particularly in the art of using the computer as an instrument.
Do you consider yourselves as part of a community of musicians? Or do you see what you do as removed from the influence of any movements?
T: What we do together is unique to us in the sense that we have our own style of communication and ways of playing that work much differently when we bring it to other people. Beyond that, we are definitely part of a community, though it seems to be independent of genre lines. I think of many of the people we've been close to, and played with, as part of an extended family, though admittedly one where lines of communication are dropped and picked up again with ease. Kind of like my biological family, come to think of it. As for influence, I am definitely influenced by the people I play with and am close to, and these people also tend to make the contemporary music I listen to the most. Otherwise I don't buy or download many records, and tend to listen to 60s stuff a lot if left to my own devices. Robert Horton burns a lot of stuff for me to keep me up to speed on latter-day stuff that I miss out on, but while I find most of it “good” and interesting, it rarely gets spun more than once or twice.
C: No, we're definitely not removed from the influence of movements. I've considered us part of different communities at different times, and often more than one community at the same time. There are friends and acquaintances that revolve and extend from and around the same places, events, and labels. Then there are musicians that share the same aesthetics with us, and sometimes the two things converge. Sometimes the rivers are flowing in a certain direction. I don't want to be isolated as there's a high price to be paid, to impose that sort of thing on yourself and I made a conscious decision not to pursue that hermit-with-a-barely-audible-voice thing. Especially as a woman, being from Texas and with my specific makeup I don't think it would be healthy. Connections with other people, other artists, have kept me going. Community can be such a nourishing thing. People who are naturals at creating and sustaining communities really amaze me, and have my undying admiration and thanks.
Did Austin, Texas have a strong influence on what you do? Would the band sound utterly different if you moved to NY or LA?
C: I don't know, my first impulse is to say "no", that any Texas influence would be coming from Houston. If we moved to NY or LA it would make us sound like a nervous breakdown (at least, because of me).
T: For me, maybe, but not for Charalambides per se, I always will consider us a Houston band, in voluntary exile maybe, but it's hard to imagine us apart from that city. Austin was where I really became comfortable as a solo performer and group improviser. I should probably mention that we, in fact, don't live in Texas anymore—I live near San Francisco (Oakland), and Christina lives in western Massachusetts (not exactly LA/New York, but close). I would guess that our experiences in those places have colored our music, though I think that is more due to other life changes rather than to geography.
Has the distance affected the Charalambides writing process?
C: Our writing process wasn't ever really a process so...I guess we're going to cycle through some different approaches. Maybe we used to utilize a bunch of different approaches on one record and now, instead, we'll focus on one approach per album. Like for the next album coming out, we recorded all pre-written songs with a sort of 'rock-studio' approach: overdubs, double tracking vocals, editing in preferred vocal tracks, recording rhythm and lead guitars separately. This was kind of necessitated by the length of my visit to Oakland where Tom lives, and probably the close quarters of recording in a small apartment. For the next one it seems like we'll go for an 'all-out' approach. Tom will visit me; we'll have more dedicated equipment space, so we will have more unfettered mental space to devote to being free and easy in doing the recordings. This will probably mean a lot more making up music on the spot, open ended pieces...of course, this is all just a guess as to what'll happen.
T: In some ways it's not that different, when we feel like recording we get together and start recording, much like we did in Texas (though the logistics are a little more complicated now). I think it makes it easier to focus, since we obviously have a limited amount of time. And I think it gives me license to geek out on the overdubs, since without anyone else around to give input. I'm in more of a vacuum, and Christina only hears them once I'm finished.
Who or what do you do you give credit to for the rising profile of 'experimental' music in the past few years? Or do you feel that this has even happened?
C: Yeah, I do feel it has actually happened. It seems to be the cumulative effect of the work of tireless music supporters like Thurston Moore, Byron Coley, Ed Hardy, and David Keenan and the availability of information and recorded music on the internet. The internet is a huge part of it. Any and all interest can be noticed, documented, and therefore it grows exponentially as there are worldwide communities in constant touch. At a show recently in Easthampton, MA there were people from Belgium, California, Ohio, Chicago, and England. Most of them were friends already from traveling to other shows, playing on the same shows, corresponding via e-mail, etc.
T: The internet mainly, to whatever extent it has happened. I don't think it's risen that much, it's still a pretty esoteric thing. Perhaps with a growing audience, but it's still a relatively small one. None of the 22 year old hipsters I work with, who are otherwise well versed in contemporary alternative newsweekly culture, know who Wolf Eyes are. Maybe they know that noise and experimental stuff is out there, but no one listens to it. It seems like scenes are very well defined nowadays and no one steps outside boundaries unless they stumble on something else they like by accident.
Do you think the mainstream has co-opted some experimental / alt. acts into 'contemporary alternative newsweekly culture'?
T: I should get more specific. When I refer to ‘newsweekly culture’ I refer to the weeklies in nearly every major US city, almost all of which are owned by either New Times or Village Voice Media. They, in cahoots with Clear Channel, set the tone for everything that passes for 'journalism' in the so-called 'alternative' media. My main complaint with that kind of culture is with the way it chokes off any regional or local underground culture. This is down from the coverage in the papers, usually dictated by labels via the press release, to radio play and booking in the clubs which is also usually handled by the aforementioned Clear Channel. Anyway...
So do you feel that some improv / experimental / noise act will eventually be allowed to break into mainstream?
T: It’s hard to believe that noise will ever become fully mainstream, or improv for that matter. I’m not expecting to see Wolf Eyes on the cover of Rolling Stone any time soon! I can't remember if Sonic Youth ever got there. Ultimately it seems like the tastes of the consumer will determine what gets into the 'top 40', no matter what the hype is. The few underground acts that break fully, i.e. consistently, into the mainstream usually do it on the strength of one album or one song, and then naturally vanish from the charts. I’m thinking of Chumbawamba, for instance. It’s hard to imagine most people casually listening to something that sounds like their radio just exploded, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear a frat rock metal band using elements of noise on their records.
What do you regard as your best work to date and why?
C: The first thought was our Houston release...partially to be contrary! Market Square is the typical answer, or has been from other people, but there isn't any “best work.” I could just as easily answer Joy Shapes for different reasons. But Houston has gotten a bad rep or has at least been ignored. To me it's a turning point, where we took a hold of the reins so to speak and laid it on the line. It doesn't seem to sound like anything identifiably back then. Market Square has its obvious nods to the pop music of the day, but I guess Houston still seems like a puzzling work to me.
T: Usually it's the last thing we've done, because that always seems like the culmination of everything leading up to it. I don't think we've ever made any giant stylistic leaps, so we're always building on what came before. if I had to pick something other than A Vintage Burden, I would be torn between Joy Shapes and maybe In cr ea se. Both of these are the fullest expressions of the improvised / abstract song form as we have conceived it. Joy Shapes is still kind of a tough listen for me, since I invested so much of myself into it for such a long period of time. I've closed the door on many of the emotional issues in that record, so there's a weird disconnect. As for In cr ea se, that marks the end of a period of duo experimentation where we were almost completely re-working our concept of song into something far more abstract. There's something uplifting about it I like that went into hibernation on the records recorded after it.
What are your musical plans for 2006?
C: Charalambides is doing a mini-tour in the spring of New England, a tour of the UK in July, and recording a new album. Our newest album A Vintage Burden is coming out on Kranky this May. As far as solo stuff, I’ll be releasing a CD on Kranky sometime this summer. It's tentatively called I Am All the Same Song and is sort of a suite of related space, sound, and vocal songs about language, words, body, and memory identities. I plan to keep on with the art books I've been doing; either as special editions of CD-Rs, or simply as objects. Also, Free Porcupine Society will release The Bastard Wing’s (my 'band' with Andrew MacGregor aka Gown) Crystal Thicket CD in July. Probably in August I’ll start working on those protest songs for Kranky as well.
T: We’ll probably be reissuing more old stuff too. Outside of Charalambides there’ll be an LP with Robert Horton, a reissue of Glyph on Digitalis, a tour and new recordings with Spiderwebs, another Badgerlore record, a CD with the Mudsuckers (which is me, Pete & Gabe from the Yellow Swans, and Robert Horton), another Kyrgyz release, CD and/or LP with Friday Group, new Zaika album, a new solo album, a CD with Christian Kiefer and hopefully some collaborations with more Portland folks? (Inca Ore, Pete Swanson, Janice McKeachern, Grouper, etc) I just quit my job for a few months and plan on doing a lot of recording and playing and pasting together CD covers.
All photos: Philo Lenglet
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2006-05-15