Pop in a Secret Language: An interview with the Caribbean
by dave heaton
The Caribbean's self-titled EP and debut full-length Verse by Verse are two of the most interesting releases I've heard in the last year or two. The Caribbean brilliantly arrange instruments, voices and noises like sound specialists, using as a framework unique pop songs that draw from musical genres as diverse as jazz standards, Brazilian pop and rock n' roll. But none of those are used really flagrantly by the band; instead they've gone about creating their own sound, one which uses everything they know and love but does it in a way that suits their own personalities. To put on a Caribbean record is to step into their world, one filled with layers of mystery and intrigue. They generate a brand of pop that is all their own. They also run a label called Little Voice, and have a remarkably original web site which casts The Caribbean as a corporate entity with vague intentions. To get a little further into the world of the people behind the The Caribbean, I recently interviewed two of its members, Michael Kentoff and Matt Byars. Both were previously members of the DC-based band The Townies, and formed the Caribbean with drummer Tony Dennison in 1999 (more recently Don Campbell has been adding his creative input to the band, as noted below). Both kindly answered all questions in detail, giving me a fuller sense of the workings of the mystery that is The Caribbean.
First off, what could you tell me about your songwriting process? The three of you live in different parts of the country, right? Is writing songs still at all collaborative?
Michael: Collaborative in the assembly-line sense; we're rarely in the same room at the same time, so one person casts the die in China, the next person assembles in Mexico, the next person paints in Battle Creek. There you go: a crappy analogy. I write the music & lyrics, generally. That's the template. Matt then decides if the song is worth shit. My batting average is getting a little better in that department. I generally write to intrigue or surprise Matt. If he likes the song, he thinks of ways to either deconstruct or augment. So, he winds up being managing editor/arranger. I'm like the beat reporter. Tony almost immediately decides on what to play on drums -- as though the entire song makes structural sense to him in an instant. A strange little gift, but really useful. On a few occassions, like "Girl at Fairgrounds" or "Toronto Make-Believes," Tony just lays down a drum idea with no song in mind and leaves Matt and I to wrap a song around it. Some songs get worked out in rehearsal; others get stitched together over a long recording process. Recently, Don Campbell has begun throwing some idea snippets into the mix as well.
Your music has a real depth of sound to it--like you'll be singing but in the background there will be people talking, or there'll be other unusual noises somewhere in the mix. To what extent do those layers come during recording versus during songwriting? Is it a matter of planning or more you guys playing around and figuring it all out as you're recording?
Michael: Yeah -- which is to say all of the above. Living in different towns, we talk a lot. When we're together, we try lots of different things. I've always preferred records that had the capacity to offer new things even on the 100th listen. I don't know if what we do manages that, but it'd be nice if that's the case.
Matthew: We keep as much random stuff that gets recorded by accident as possible, with the hopes of creating as many happy accidents as possible. The stuff's that's in there is totally unexpected to us as well, but I think we're good at recognizing when a random sound or word adds something to the proceedings.
How would you characterize the differences between your first, self-titled EP and your album Verse by Verse, as far as what you were trying to accomplish? To me the album seems fuller, with more of a variety of instruments and sounds.
Michael: We started both records at the same time. The EP was simply a state-of-the-union at the end of 1999. A couple of songs, "Front Row at the Rodeo" and "To Call Your Very Own" were in the mix at that time, but unfinished or out of context; we didn't know what to do with them. For Verse By Verse, we wrote more songs, became, if possible, even more insular than we'd been during the EP and realized we had no reason to work these songs out to play live, so we were free to communicate the songs in any fashion we wanted. To use corporate boardroom parlance: we were able to think more out of the box. One result was less bass. Bass often clutters and the sound of just acoustic guitar and drums or piano and drums is a beautiful thing. Why do we need bass all the time? What does it do? Well, sometimes it moves the beat along and sometimes it provides a counter-melody or a moody texture. Sometimes it just obscures the beauty of a song. It's hard to have a light touch with a bass, so we learned to (1) phase it out of some songs, (2) use it in odd places or (3) substitute piano for bass in some instances.
Matthew: Exactly. We didn't create them live, nor were we constrained by having to recreate them live. It was extremely liberating.
From the first time I listened to Verse By Verse, "Front Row at the Rodeo" struck me as the perfect radio single/mix-tape selection, due to its catchiness. When you're creating a recording, how conscious are you of having some songs which are more direct, that will instantly catch listeners' ears?
Michael: We try to walk the line between not giving a shit what anyone else thinks and wanting to be loved by everyone. Matt can explain this much more eloquently than I. Generally, we want to communicate, but we don't want to provide a free ride into predictable territory. We're pop fans, but we come from an experimental and non-pop backgrounds. Songs like "Front Row at the Rodeo" might be classified as what Matt calls "role players." I might really hope that people gravitate toward songs like "Verse By Verse" or "Impure" from the EP, but the more upbeat, poppy stuff is the honey. That's fine with me. We are, after all, pop fans. We love the Smiths and Carole King.
Matthew: Michael's set me up for an eloquence I most likely can't provide, but I'll give it a shot. As I'm Michael's audience, I think I generally have more perspective than him on some of his own creations (he might beg to differ), so I sometimes see when things will catch listener's ears in a way Michael may not. This was the case with "Rodeo" in particular, which was really Michael's first creating in his home studio...it had an immediacy that a lot of our stuff doesn't.
Your singing style doesn't always take a linear, expected path. In regard to either the vocals or just your music in general, how much does surprise figure in to what you're trying to accomplish? To what degree are you at times consciously trying to subvert listeners' expectations by making pop songs that don't stick with the conventional patterns of a pop song?
Michael: Again, you want to meet a listener part of the way. Like, "Here: you know this and this. Here are some pretty hooks; you know what that feels like. Uh...here's something different!" Songwriting is creating an intimate connection. Once you've established that, you can try some cool shit. It's like massaging someone's temples: you do that, create a mood and then whisper "I am the Crowned Prince of Safety Goggles" into that person's ear and the person is like, "Sure, fine." As for singing, I love Sinatra and love how he used dynamics to catch listeners off-guard, so I do a suburban, nasally, Jewish Sinatra.
What are you guys up to right now; are you on tour? Do you have any upcoming releases planned?
Michael: Tony, our drummer, moved to Florida, but he laid down about a dozen drum tracks to existing, partially existing and non-existing songs before he left. They sound swell. We're working -- Matt, Don and I -- on a set featuring just the three of us, which is turning out sparse and naked. Both Matt and Don are very good drummers, so it hasn't been quite the stressful adjustment it might have been. I'd rather Tony have stayed in DC and we'll continue working together in the Caribbean, but he's out of the performing picture for the foreseeable future, so we have to tear down and re-configure, which is interesting. I miss him already -- although not personally -- but it's always a good thing to have to be resourceful.
Matthew: Tony who?
How would describe the differences between your live show and your studio recordings? It seems that some of the sound-layering I spoke of earlier wouldn't be easy to accomplish in a live setting. Do you tend to rock it up more live?
Michael: We don't try to re-create the recordings live, especially now that we're three-piece. In the place of layers of sound, we throw in flourishes of sound to flesh out certain parts of a song. Everything's built on dynamics -- fairly quiet so that when you add something, people really feel it. I'm sick of hearing groups that don't fret the dynamics of a set: everything being roughly the same volume and density throughout a set, whether it's quiet or loud. It's almost like groups willfully pigeonhole themselves: "we're really quiet." Well, I guess the Caribbean's pretty quiet, but hopefully we cover a broad sound and volume spectrum when we play. The set is supposed to take you from one point in the narrative to another, so we need all the dynamics we can muster.
Matthew: We have traditionally been a fairly tough sell live, in that we're very demanding of the listener, and patently refuse to dumb anything down for live performance (e.g., repeat a chorus or even a verse any more than we do on record). Since we really don't push people's rock "buttons," we're often met by silence. Michael's right, though: since we're not just one thing bundled up in a package (i.e., really loud for the whole set, or really quiet for the whole set), we can't be pigeonholed in a way people want their bands pigeonholed. I've often argued that, in a strictly academic sense, a band like Low is essentially doing the same thing as the New Bomb Turks, in that they do one thing dynamically for every song in every set and on every record. Again, people like their entertainment in little packages, with neat little bows on it.
On a previous occasion, you (Michael) mentioned that Miracle Legion was one of the bands that made you want to become a musician. What else can you both tell me about what led you into making music?
Michael: To us, there is music and ways of thinking about music largely unrepresented in either the mainstream or independent realm. For a lover of music, I sure hate a lot more music than I like, so if I didn't feel we were filling a vacancy that needed filling, I probably wouldn't be making music. I was also raised by parents who, good intentions aside, introduced me to music and then tirelessly dissuaded me from any serious participation in it, so how could I resist? When Matt and I met, we realized we had strikingly similar interests and formed Townies using groups like Miracle Legion, American Music Club and the Smiths as spiritual models. Our feeling was, very few people know about Miracle Legion, but the people who like them are WAY into them, personally involved with their records. We wanted to establish that kind of connection with complete strangers.
Matthew: Exactly. I liken our stuff to a secret language that is beautiful if you care to learn it, and Miracle Legion did that better than any band I know.
Your first EP was on Little Voice, your own label, and I know you've released or distributed other musicians' releases on that label as well. Is Little Voice still active; do you have any releases coming up?
Michael: Little Voice is alive to put out Townies music and distribute some other artists like Bill Ding, but we were never really label guys. So, the label's alive, but we haven't been paying much attention to it -- it's almost more of a PR operation supporting the Caribbean with the stuff Endearing does.
Speaking of labels, I'm wondering how you ended up on Endearing. I think it's a great match, as on the whole Endearing's releases are fantastic.
Michael: We sent the EP to some labels we thought might hear something in what we were doing. Blair called me up one night with his delicious Winnipeg accent and it all worked out. I think we're all big Canadaphiles, too. When Endearing got a hold of us, we were happy to surrender the record company reigns. Blair (at Endearing) does an excellent job, is sympathetic to what we do and is adamant about letting us be us. He loves pop; we love pop. It's a good pairing.
The three of you were in two previous DC bands, The Townies and Smart Went Crazy? What can you tell me about those bands and how they compared musically to what you're doing now? Are their recordings still available?
Michael: Both bands had a bit of a mutual admiration society thing. Tony was in Smart Went Crazy and we met him at the old 9:30 Club when Townies was playing with Low and Pell Mell in 1996, I think. Smart Went Crazy were on Dischord and had the whole DC hipness thing going. Townies were about as popular with the Dischord crowd as Barry Manilow or blueballs, so it was an odd relationship. The records of both bands are all still out there. Smart Went Crazy had a Pixieish bent, it always seemed to me while Townies probably sounded more like Codeine or Low crossed with Rogers and Hart. Who knows? It would be unfair to say that the Caribbean sounds much like either band, although we indisputably sound more like Townies since I sang/sing for both groups and Mr. Byars and I still have some carryover dynamics in the way we work.
I think your web site, where you cast the Caribbean as a corporation, is brilliant. [And the other day I even noticed that your "Living Our Values" page includes the same stock photo that the company which I work for uses on some of their marketing materials.] What prompted you to do the site in that way?
Michael: That's all Matt. We wanted something different, so he went onto Microsoft's site and put the word Caribbean where the word Microsoft was. Genius. We're privately hoping for a nasty letter from Microsoft or having them file a civil complaint seeking an injunction. Actually, without any malice at all toward Microsoft, we just thought it was unlike anything any group in the world had. That's our overall goal, albeit in a more subtle way. This fit in with that. Every time we tried to do a group site, it just looked like other groups' sites, which is not what we wanted. I get incredibly depressed when I hear or think about a lot of "indie" rock music, so it's just easier NOT to be associated with anyone. The site was a way of getting there.
Matthew: In a strictly technical sense, I stole the html and altered the images in PhotoShop, but maintained the original structure of the Microsoft site and the inane copy, simply plugging in our name anywhere it said "Microsoft." I think it's very similar to our creative process with music...there's interesting, funny, and moving stuff virtually everywhere, and if you can recognize it, you alter it (or not) and use if for your own purposes. There are other bands with that ethos, but it's often DJs or electronica stuff; I love marrying that with Michael's songwriting.
One last question that I always ask: If there's an album, film or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me about it.
Michael: I really like the New Pornographers' record. I saw All the President's Men for the umpteenth time recently and I think it's one of the greatest movies of all time. Very odd movie: it doesn't really have a pay-off and yet it thoroughly satisfies. How many Hollywood movies do that? So much intricate detail yet communicated as entertainment. That's the key: balancing between two seemingly irreconcilable poles.
Matthew: Neil Young's Harvest and After the Gold Rush. Not as recent, but Being John Malkovich is one of my favorite movies of the past few years. Like any great work of art, it creates its own internal logic, as well as being funny without actually needing to be labeled a comedy.