Monday, October 31, 2011

Reading the Entire Skull: Caroliner

 A Caroliner live show. Photo thanks to

Caroliner is the ongoing performance and sound recording project of an aggressively anonymous San Francisco collective. Their principle media are vinyl records and live performances, although visual arts and poetry also play important roles in their aesthetic. Since their inception in 1983, they have released 13 full-length albums, numerous EP's and have been featured on many compilations. Many of their recorded songs appear to be studio-constructed sound collages, made up of a diverse blend of post-punk jams, sound effects, bizarre Dionysian vocals, grungy folk songs, semi-orchestrated string and horn sections, field recordings, and free improvisations, often played on modified or homemade instruments. Album sides blend together as suites, and songs are connected with short interludes or transitions. These transitions can range anywhere from several-minute-long untitled piano improvisations (as on Toodoos) to a simple brief drum beat played in reverse (before "Rainbows Made of Meat" on Strike Them Hard, Drag Them to Church).

Caroliner often filters instruments through various media like telephone receivers and oddly-placed microphones, which add curious distortion and reverberation to their recordings. Some songs are further colored with media like old shellac record noise, recording tape and wire. In effect, recording media are used as instruments.

Caroliner Rainbow Scrambled Egg Taken for a Wife, Banknotes, Dreams & Signatures (1994)
This final product is presented to the listener with great care, albeit in a more-than-slightly DIY flavor. Packaging ranges from heavy cloth to cardboard boxes to diaper disposal bags. Each cover is adorned with a calligraphic band logo, which is sometimes part of a larger set of detailed pen drawings which depict characters or situations from the songs. Inside, one will find a vinyl LP record (sometimes two), and a sheet of paper with lyrics and drawings. The Caroliner experience is already weird: next you take a look at the lyrics.

The lyrics really give the listener an idea of the depth of Caroliner's concept: songs on their recordings are elaborate sonic stages, on which performers enact various scenes. Among these performers, you might encounter a horse named Loin Loin, an outlaw named Frank Fuller, the Levitt children, or various hybrid-mutant creatures like Dumhevae, Caeyman, and a 12-headed squirrel god. More generically, lyrics feature imagery of bulls, horses, cowboys & Indians, and other cultural aspects of the 1800's. These characters are typically involved in strange antics and supernatural events, but sometimes they are just starving and being dismembered.

Strike Them Hard, Drag Them To Church center label artwork
Underneath the Caroliner logo can be found the rest of the band's name, which changes from album to album (and apparently from tour to tour as well). The reason for this is not explained by the band, but in doing so they ally themselves closely to Sun Ra and his various Arkestrae, another art project which experimented with radical identity art. But unlike Sun Ra's bands, which sometimes feature musicians' names printed on the covers, no names are mentioned on Caroliner album covers at all. In this way, they are similar to the Residents and Jandek. But unlike these projects, which are not just anonymous but also very private, Caroliner seems to freely give interviews, talking at length about a variety of topics, in a style which reminds one of the band's lyrics. But in interviews, band members use pseudonyms which are the names of their character in the band, cleverly evading personal questions. Caroliner band members are characters in the Caroliner-verse.

There is usually only one reason why bands change their names: for marketing reasons. If another band of the same name is encountered, legal problems can ensue. If a once-cute band name has now worn out its humor, a new one can help a band feel more confident to break through to a larger audience. Caroliner changes their name so often that it's part of the project's aesthetic. In experimenting with their identity (collective and individual), Caroliner join the ranks of other contemporary projects like the Neoists, who invented the identities of Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot for similar social/experimental reasons. These experiments also expose flaws inherent to the music business, which is wholly unable to deal with such projects.

Caroliner, Toodoos (1999)
The band shares another similarity with Sun Ra in its adoption of a complex and unbelievable mythology of its origin and purpose. Caroliner is a tribute band to a bull of the same name, which rambled the American frontier in the 1800's collecting folk and worker's songs and singing them back like a bovine jukebox. Somehow or other, a book of the bull's songs was acquired in 1983, compelling this band to recreate the songs in their own style, which is ... varied, to say the least. Their performances attempt to recreate the experience of ergot poisoning, during which "you actually see regular or fantastic things that are in different colors"[2].

This phrase is understated description of their live show, which features surreal masks, costumes, instrument decorations and set pieces. Many sets pieces are colored with day-glo ultraviolet paint, which become illuminated by the half-a-dozen black lights which hang above the band. The band's spokes-character Cottypearile once described a Caroliner show as a "handful of 1800s character-denizens parading a parlor room soaked in scream light"[1]. Elsewhere, "The costumes all have semi-specific Caroliner characters portrayed by each human member, turning them into a walking musical god of some sort." [3] The band roars through their set with a feverish abandon:

Other than matrix numbers printed on the vinyl, the only feature of their albums that relates Caroliner to the outside world is Kind Cataracts, a legal entity which holds publish- and copyright over the music and lyrics. Kind Cataracts was established in 1983, which is probably the year the project was initiated.

Close listening to Caroliner will summon up associations a wide-ranging cross section of modern musical philosophers: Sun Ra, Mayo Thompson, Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, The Residents, Frank Zappa John Cage, and Morton Subotnick. But just as prevalent in their sound is the influence of music from the other end of the century: American folk music and blues. The band claims to have not been influenced by bands like the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth; rather they cite Gid Tanner and Dock Boggs as prime influences. (Also the Barrel Gordon Trio, which may be in some obscure discography but also may have been made up by the band.)

Caroliner was a strong influence on the early Deerhoof, as well as on much of the Bay Area underground music scene, particularly Hans GrĂ¼sel's Krankenkabinet and the Spider Compass Good Crime Band. Caroliner have toured North America several times, as well as Japan, and Europe. Covers of their songs have been recorded by the Sun City Girls and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, and probably others as well. Wolf Eyes members Aaron Dilloway and Nate Young were also strongly effected.

Due to the music business' institutional bias against such projects, wider recognition has eluded Caroliner. They performed as the closing act at the 2010 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, indicating that perhaps their public recognition is beginning to increase.

With all that said, I close with a quote from the Buttonup Skeleton:

"Those are words that the music critics use to describe things. You must realize that with such words are you are dealing with an after-the-fact treatment of events. You are already lost. Even the most accurate of music critic description is still dealing with a history where the ghost has gone by." [3]

Do not take my word for it. Explore this important project on your own. They may be known as:

Caroliner Rainbow Grace Blocks Used In The Placement Of The Personality 
Caroliner Rainbow Fingers Of The Underground & Their Breakable Bones 
Caroliner Rainbow Tongue On The Fingermill Of The Paste Demon 
Caroliner Rainbow Stand Still Or Fight Beans And Sunstroke 
Caroliner Rainbow Brain Tool Imbued With Rust And Mold 
Caroliner Rainbow Wire Thin Sheep Legs Baking Exhibit 
Caroliner Rainbow Customary Relaxation of the Shale 
Caroliner Rainbow Hands Replaced By Oversized Rocks 
Caroliner Rainbow Scrambled Egg Taken For A Wife 
Caroliner Rainbow Solid Handshake & Loose 2 Pins 
Caroliner Rainbow Water Tainted Finger Sap 
Caroliner Rainbow Cannon And Church Mister 
Caroliner Rainbow Cook Up Yer Pants To Eat 
Caroliner Rainbow Snake Tailed Waxwalker 
Caroliner Rainbow Splinter Mine Deserves 
Caroliner Rainbow Susans And Bruisins 
Caroliner Rainbow Open Wound Chorale 
Caroliner Rainbow Stewed Angel Skins 
Caroliner Rainbow Hernia Milk Queen 
Caroliner Rainbow Open Sore Chorale 
Caroliner Rainbow Throw Up Fantasy 
Caroliner Rainbow Gumkuppers 

[1] Caroliner. "Interview by way of the Museum of Viral Memory". Posted to the band's MySpace blog on December 5, 2006.
[2] Caroliner, interviewed in Skogh Magazine, Sweden. Posted to the band's MySpace page on October 4, 2006
[3] Caroliner, interviewed by someone from the Berkeley Art Museum. Posted to the band's MySpace page on March 12, 2010.
[4] Caroliner, "Caroliner Interview Questions". Posted to the band's MySpace page on Wednesday, August 19, 2009.