Charalambides is one of the most arresting, unique, and compellingly weird bands to emerge from the Lone Star State in the past decade. That’s no mean feat, considering the Tejas psychedelic world has produced the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Red Krayola, Scratch Acid, the Butthole Surfers, and other purveyors of excellently absurdist rock. Charalambides, however, is distinctive even among these weirdoes in that the duo of Tom Carter (guitar) and Christina Carter (vocals, guitar) concentrates more on a beautifully haunting, spiritual vibe (not to mention neither of them lives in Texas any more), as opposed to the over-the-top psych scrawl of the fellow native Texans mentioned above. Listening to any title in their prodigious catalog from their debut cassette Our Bed Is Green to their recent material on the Kranky label is like soaking in a warm bath for an hour, blindfolded, on hallucinogens — only better. I recently conversed via email with Tom and Christina about their fresh release Joy Shapes, their approach to playing and improvising, their many side projects, and their future. This interview will appear in Swingset #6, along with a Mike Watt interview of Ray Pettibon, Devendra Banhart, Hair Police, Lloyd Banks (G-UNIT!) a Wolf Eyes tour diary, Metalux, Some Girls, Tyson Reeder and more.
Swingset: What was the recording process like for Joy Shapes? How did it differ from, say, Market Square or other releases?
Tom Carter: Joy Shapes was a lot different from everything else, mainly because it was the first time I was able to use a computer to mix. Before that (like for Market Square) there were a lot of frustrating live-4-track-to-DAT editing sessions and real-time layering that would almost drive me crazy trying to get right. Beyond that obvious difference, the Joy Shapes recordings were intensive and really heavy all the way through. Most of the other records were recorded in pieces over time and sometimes even from different eras. For Joy Shapes we recorded a few improvs and our trio set (mostly instrumental but with occasional vocals on the backing tracks), did multiple recordings of some songs, and then worked on it from there (mostly me solo, since Christina was on tour a lot, and also since computer mixing is very much a hermit activity). I picked out the stuff I wanted to work with, did some overdubs myself, had Christina overdub her vocals, and then mixed and edited like crazy. It took a year and a lot of energy. For earlier releases, things would take that long just because they would stall out in manufacturing, etc., but for Joy Shapes there was a year of solid thinking, discussion, listening, editing, artwork, etc. that combined with all the changes flying around in our lives made the process an alive and all-consuming thing that basically meshed in every way with my existence. My life became full of all this weird synchronicity and huge emotional gestures and crazy drama, and when it was done I was in a daze, and next thing I know I’m in Oakland holding a box of finished CDs.
SS: Am I incorrect in thinking that some instrumentation appeared on Joy Shapes that you hadn’t used on other records?
TC: One new-ish instrument was pedal steel, but we’d put out CD-Rs with pedal steel at that point. There’s also the psaltry, but Heather uses that a lot on the Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast CD. And there are the chimes and windwand, though they’re used minimally. The main new instrument was the computer. I did a lot of editing and processing stuff with it that I never could’ve done before…
SS: “Voice for You” on Joy Shapes — the production on this song is striking. Describe how you achieved the sounds, or what you were aiming for in terms of mood.
TC: The mood was supposed to be more ecstatic, gospel style, since the other two composed songs were (ahem) more “downbeat” and we wanted to avoid the dark ending of Market Square. The basic track was edited from a longer version and the layered guitar solos all grew organically out of solos that were already in the backing tracks. I also did a lot of computer editing on this one, making distorted vocal and panned delay loops and layering them over the music, chopping them up with a heavy gate at the end to make the sound more jagged (as opposed to droning, for example). For some strange reason this track was fairly complex but took much less time to finish and mix than Joy Shapes and Here Not Here.
SS: What advantages or disadvantages did working in a studio have over other home recording methods?
TC: All of Joy Shapes was in fact recorded at home. It’s hard to imagine recording anywhere else, since the clock on the studio wall is an oppressive thing. I did take it to a mastering studio, which is a bit different … I took a CD of my final mixes to Jerry Tubb’s studio in Austin, and he ran it through all his gear, tube pre-amps and EQ, expensive limiters, etc. I was pretty amazed at how alive the sound came, how much the mastering warmed it up. Jerry Tubb is great to work with, a north Texas ex-hippy who studied electronic music in Amarillo, did work with Townes van Zandt, Willie Nelson, and Terry Allen, and also did mastering work for the Butthole Surfers and a lot of releases on Emperor Jones (his work on the Tom Carter/Pip Proud CD convinced me to take the Charalambides mixes there). He’s open to all kinds of music and made some really good suggestions, including leaving some gravel in the sound in various places where I had been trying to smooth it out. I would say the main advantage we got from going into the mastering studio was an engineer who really knew what he was doing and did it artfully. If you don’t have a good engineer, any kind of studio is pointless.
SS: Was the “lost night” you’ve described during the Joy Shapes sessions a strangely one-time rock ‘n roll thing, or has that happened before?
TC: We drank a ton, smoked a ton, stayed up late, and Christina collapsed in a shivering heap at the end of it. That was really the only thing lost about it; the wiped out feeling at the end. Hard to imagine the energy level shooting up all the way like that again, though some of our shows tap the same source. The sound manifesting itself in the physical.
SS: How do the two of you find time to engage in projects with other musicians? Is Scorces still a band? How did the work with Pip Proud come about? Any new collaborations planned for the future?
TC: I’m collaborating with Marcia Basset (Un, Double Leopards) on a record for Eclipse; with Texas guitarist Sandy Ewen in a duo called Spiderwebs for a triptych CD on Music Fellowship; and with Vanessa Arn (ex-Primordial Undermind) on a split CD with Moglass. There’s other stuff planned too: duo projects with Christian Keifer, and Robert Horton (a Bay-area sound artist with roots in the original punk era). I’m in a group with some guys from Liquorball and The Rip-Offs, and also in Badgerlore (originally only Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, and Rob Fisk). So I keep busy. I find it’s much easier for me to keep going if I play with other people, and it expands my playing. I start to feel a bit isolated and walled off if all my playing is solo and I don’t see Christina very much. I hooked up with Pip Proud through Craig Stewart from Emperor Jones, who assembled a rotating cast of musicians to provide backing here and there on Pip’s new records. I ended up on one of them and Pip liked it enough to ask about doing a whole record together. He’s a really interesting guy, very interested in Nikolai Tesla. Also says he never heard Syd Barrett (I believe him, he’s existed in his own unaltered sound world for so long, I can only assume it goes back to birth).
Christina Carter: Yeah, Scorces is definitely a going concern. We’ve got plans to play together and record during my visit to the UK this winter and hopefully play a show or two. Also, Idea Records from San Antonio is releasing the double I Turn into You Scorces album sometime this coming spring. It features Heather playing electric guitar and me playing pedal steel with Heather singing a poem I wrote as lyrics, hence the title. We were playing around with becoming each other, doing what the other person normally does. Other collaborations I’ve got planned in various stages of reality/immediacy are a mail collaboration with Spencer Yeh of Burning Star Core, some live playing with Jeffrey Alexander from Black Forest/Black Sea, some recording and/or playing live as Passenger Rainbow with my pal Matthew Wascovich who runs the Slow Toe poetry press and hopefully someday a Christina Carter and Badgerlore live set with Badgerlore acting as “my” Crazy Horse – but all electric guitars. Another definite collaboration in the works is with Andrew MacGregor (Gown, Amarillo Stars). We’re going to do a mid-west tour in the spring and have a track (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and duo vocals) coming out on a split album with My Cat Is An Alien in February and I’m sure more recording/playing to follow.
SS: What does it mean for Charalambides to be a band that is geographically separated now? How has moving to the coasts affected your lives and your music, if at all?
TC: The biggest change is that we’re not together very much, and big chunks of our lives will take place in the absence of the other. So we’re growing separately as people and musicians, which can make playing for the first time after a long absence surprising sometimes. I think we were each pretty surprised at how much more extroverted our music has become at least in the group context. In a way that may be due to being able to loosen up after having played solo separately for so long. Solo playing is often about control, and having someone there to back you up is a license to lose a bit of that control.
CC: Yeah, it affects it just in real obvious ways, like we gotta plan way in advance when we can get together and I gotta buy a plane ticket to get out there so it costs more money to make music. But, we always had the concept that we’re not a band in the sense that we don’t have to practice or record a certain amount per week/per year to exist. And I think we’ve developed more obvious, outward separate musical lives/existences so that we can each play as much as keeps us happy rather than having to wait for Charalambides time.
SS: How does the group dynamic change with the addition/subtraction of people?
CC: I feel like our being two or three people is a good way to do it, more people than that and it might dilute what we do. Jason and Heather were all people we feel musically comfortable and in tune with. The main thing seems to be that they helped expand the ideas and sounds and because we would never ask someone to play with us without a complete sense of trust; it was easy to let go with them and see where it would take us all. We would never tell someone what to play, how to play, so it was a really flexible thing where you all find out what your strengths are together and go from there. When it’s just the duo of Tom and me, it seems like we become more of a blues band.
TC: It depends on the person. Though a third person tends to make things more texturally rich. A third also can make things more “polite” in a way, at least until we’ve figured each other out. Our first shows with Heather were pretty restrained. Whereas Christina and I give each other a lot of room to do whatever, with a third you’re always conscious of not crowding someone out…
SS: Why did Heather leave the group?
CC: Heather fell in love and moved to Glasgow, so for practical reasons Tom and I have to carry on as a duo. It makes it interesting enough to figure out when Tom and I can get together to record/play/tour with our living in different places in the same country! Heather’s busy with solo playing, her duo Taurpis Tula and running the Volcanic Tongue mail-order outlet.
SS: You’ve stated in past interviews that you hate touring, yet Charalambides has definitely been more active in the past few years. What kinds of playing environments do you prefer?
TC: We love touring now and will play almost anywhere. Though it’s nice if there’s a receptive audience (size is less important than the level of attention). Parties are great, but so are bars if the mood is right. Community art spaces are great, as long as you can drink. One of the reasons we were so deeply uncomfortable with live performance before was because we simply weren’t experienced or structured or confident enough to play decent sets every time. Nor were we really sure what we wanted to do live, or how we could even go about figuring it out. What finally worked for us was paring everything down to the basics: guitar and voice. And then gradually becoming able to shed expectations of what we should sound like and listening to what we were actually able to do well. Coming up with very basic and open ended songs also helped.
SS: What is in the immediate future for Charalambides in terms of tours, releases, reissues, etc.? What long-term plans are ahead?
CC: We’re probably doing a short tour of Europe/the UK in May of 2005 and recording a new album for Kranky at some point in the near future. Long term plans are more of the same; recording, playing. And to continue to get some more older albums in print through Kranky.
TC: I’m working on a new solo record, kind of more along the lines of Root King than the CD-Rs were. I also have the collaboration projects mentioned in one of the above questions. Beyond that, who knows? I would like to do an extensive and comprehensive solo tour someday soon, one that lasts for weeks and weeks. Obviously having a job makes that a bit of a pipe dream at the moment but I’m leaving the possibility open at least.
– Our Bed Is Green CS-90 (No Label, 1992)
– Union LP (Siltbreeze, 1993)
– Historic 6th Ward CS-90 (No Label, 1994)
– Our Bed is Green CD (Paper sleeve – Reissued with jewel box in 1997) (Wholly Other, 1995)
– Market Square 2LP (Siltbreeze, 1995)
– Historic 6th Ward CD (Wholly Other, 1996)
– Charalambides CD (Wholly Other, 1997)
– Houston CD (Siltbreeze, 1998)
– Internal Eternal CD (Wholly Other, 1999)
– Sticks CD-R (Wholly Other, 2000)
– Home CD-R (Wholly Other, 2000)
– Branches Lathe LP (Eclipse, 2001)
– Water CD-R (Wholly Other, 2001)
– YIH CD-R (Carbon, 2001)
– “Second Rehearsal” on Songs From the Entopic Garden Volume 2 Split LP (with Six Organs of Admittance) (Timelag, 2001)
– Historic 6th Ward 2LP (Timelag, 2002)
– Untitled CD-R (with Scorces)( Wholly Other, 2002)
– Being As Is CD-R (Crucial Blast, 2002)
– CHT CD-R (Wholly Other, 2002)
– Live Hand Held CD-R (Wholly Other, 2002)
– IN CR EA SE 2LP (Eclipse, 2002)
– Ana/Kata 10″ EP (Beta Lactam Ring, 2002)
– Unknown Spin LP/CD (Kranky)
– Joy Shapes LP/CD (Kranky, 2004)
– L’Etoile de Mer CS (Freedom From, 2001)
– Living Contact CD-R (Wholly Other, 2001)
– Hand & Mind CD-R (Wholly Other, 2002)
– Future in Past CD-R (Wholly Other, 2002)
– Monument CD-R (W.O., 2001)
– Appearance on A Yellow Flower CD by Pip Proud (Emperor Jones, 2001)
– Catch a Cherub CD with Pip Proud (Emperor Jones, 2002)
Heather Leigh Murray:
– Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast CD (Wholly Other/Fleece, 1996)
– Cuatro + Vocal Recordings CDR (Wish Image, 2002)
– Scorces CD (Wholly Other, 2001)
– “Crow Feet” on Untitled CD-R (with Charalambides) (Wholly Other, 2002)