The music collective known as Caroliner has been intermittently active in the Bay Area for three decades. Shrouded in ever-changing pseudonyms and elaborate disguises, they profess to be the holders of a songbook created by a singing bull named Caroliner in the 1880’s.
Here’s how then (possibly now) member B’Sau-Sau explained it in a 1991 interview on their now-defunct website:
“Well the original Singing Bull was from back in the 1800’s, and the whole trip was uh … let’s see. To start off, this gal had a singing bull on a ranch. She took it around, it sang all these songs, it could pick up songs, you’d relay these songs to it and then it would get it back to you, it would sing it back to you … like a tape deck… right? And then, uh, so what she did is, she took it around, took it to all these mine camps, made a small little amount of money, you know, and entertained people. . . Anyway she goes back to the ranch, there’s nothin’ to eat, everything’s gone to hell, there’s no food, nothin’, so she cuts up Caroliner and eats it, wraps it in its own skin and it keeps on singin’. And then all the songs are whatever, passed down, and I got ’em.”
Whatever you make of that, the band is no joke, musically or productively. They have issued at least 16 albums since 1985, in homemade packages of corduroy or adorned pizza boxes, they have spawned or been associated with members of countless bands including Deerhoof and possibly Mr. Bungle, and they have lately been appearing around once a year to put on one of the most remarkable live shows.
I have always been both surprised and selfishly happy that Caroliner isn’t more of a celebrated institution. Given how they do an amazingly good job at being the logical extension of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Magic Band and The Residents, not to mention the progenitors of noise bands like The Boredoms, one would think the inquiring microphones of All Things Considered or such like would have sniffed them out and exalted them years ago. But, as I say, thank your stars they didn’t. As it is, Caroliner Rainbow (who also add florid subtitles to the band name for each album or show – tonight, for example, they are Caroliner Rainbow Shade is Natural Composure) enjoys a concentrated, passionate fan base for their yearly appearences.
I felt that a band of such multiple angles deserved a review made up of many voices. So I enlisted my librarian friend, Lia Thomas to see what she could turn up about the band’s carefully guarded story. And I asked my friend Gage Kenady, whose sketch of an earlier Caroliner show appeared in the British music magazine The Wire, if he would once again recreate his impressions in art.
Lia, with her usual breathtaking genius, took all of five minutes to deluge me with more content than I could possibly digest, let alone summarize for you, our discerning readership. She used some fictional-sounding web service called The Wayback Machine to grant me access to the above-mentioned web site, and also established the following:
Caroliner was possibly founded by Gregg Turkington, aka the “anti” comic Neil Hamburger, who allegedly left early. Despite major and minor players rotating through at a dizzying pace, the project has been largely under the direction of the singer, who usually goes by the name of Grux. Early albums utilized more traditional instruments like banjo and bucket, albeit heavily altered as were the vocals. An aggressive noise rock/free jazz element has always been present, but as time went on the emphasis moved to electric bass, guitar and organ. They reputedly went bankrupt and took a hiatus in the mid-nineties.
A Caroliner show typically follows the same format – the stage is adorned with an elaborate set of cardboard constructions around the amplifiers, drums and keyboards, with chains of cardboard panels painted in psychedelic patterns in day-glo colors activated by black light everywhere else. This is concealed by a curtain while four or so hard noise/multi-media/tweaker performance artists do their thing on the dance floor for about fifteen minutes each. The curtain opens and Caroliner then holds court for at least an hour.
A trio known as pantyKhrist were on offer first at the Cafe Du Nord Wednesday night. Although their attacks on a small table of effects boxes and mixers were sonically unessential, they threw themselves into the spirit of things with day-glo snoods. 1000 extra points for the band name.
Local artist Coagulator performed what sounded like a Pantykhrist cover on the guitar, run through a table of effects boxes. His photo is unavailable due to his standing still in the dark.
Tony Dryer emitted an unvarying, super-amplified dentist’s drill drone from a table of effects boxes for 14.5 minutes longer than necessary. Thankfully, a pulse finally arrived to the evening with the final opener, Gumball Rimpoche, who turned the lights on and ranted, with breaks for schizophrenic whispers and all-out screaming fits, into a microphone run through a series of effects boxes.
Caroliner delivered an exhaustive and exhausting set. One can never tell if the personnel are consistent from previous shows. The keyboardist seemed taller and more female than last time, though the keyboards themselves sounded exactly the same. The banjo made a welcome return. Perhaps the stand-out of this show was the minimal presence of vocals, possibly due to Grux’s doubling on bass. Past uses of microphone throwing or dropping as musical elements have been downplayed.
One is always tempted to retreat to the back of the auditorium during the first few minutes. That’s the point – bombard the senses. But each time I see them, I find myself being drawn through the curtain of overload into a blissful unity with the music. The individual instruments emerge from the onslaught. The communication between the players, their skill, the logic of the shifting musical motifs all start to resonate with their own internal logic. Admiration is one of the surprising sensations with which one emerges from their show.
Then (possibly now) member Timber Amplifier predicted, in an interview from around 1990, “ten years from now, Caroliner will have the music down so perfect, hopefully, that we will have ways to actually nostalgically re-create the 1800’s by intensifying the duplicate sound and move to the head of the music pack.”
(In the same interview, The Felt Pelt articulated a worldview that may (or may not) go a ways towards evoking the Caroliner mind set: “I’ve never felt that this land I live on is actually anything relative to what I should be living with. A perfect world for me would be a solid metal sphere warmed from the inside by human flesh rubbing together and heating the entire globe.”)